There´s a fascinating story about the death of print journalism inside Kevin Macdonald´s State of Play; too bad it´s wrapped inside a rather routine political thriller. Not that the thriller is bad (though it is a bit muddled) but it hits the usual notes, and detracts from the real compelling stuff here: the inner-workings of a big city newspaper in this age of bloggers.
State of Play opens with a double-shooting: a junkie shot execution-style, a passing pizza delivery man in a coma, Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) investigating. Meanwhile, Sonia Baker apparently commits suicide by jumping in front of a train; she was chief researcher for Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) in his big case against big war-profiteering corporation PointCorp. She was also his mistress.
McAffrey has an inside track on the Baker story: he´s Collins´ old college roommate (now, Crowe is eight years older than Affleck and looks 15, but this is the least of the film´s implausibilities). Globe blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) attempts to use that connection, but McAffrey shoots her down. When Collins shows up at McAffrey´s apartment and reveals that Baker´s death could not have been a suicide, McAffrey begins to investigate, and finds some connections with his double shooting to boot.
Frye, in typical blogger style (or at least, print journalism´s view of blogger style) runs her take on Collins without much regard for fact-checking. McAffrey has little choice but to team up with her on a multi-layered investigation of Baker, Collins, and PointCorp, under the visage of editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren).
There are, as expected, compelling twists and turns along the way, and it´s all engrossing till the final twist, which invokes that age-old cliché of the true villain revealing himself in a minor dialogue slip-up (“wait a minute, how did you know about such-and-such?”).
The stars are perfectly serviceable, with Crowe especially fun as the scruffy reporter, but Mirren´s editor, mourning the death of journalistic standards, provides the film´s backbone. And Jason Bateman absolutely steals the film in a key third-act performance that infuses State of Play with some much needed comedy, and surprisingly, heart.
There are two really interesting themes here, the first being the slow death of print journalism in the internet age, the second being the ethics of the business of war, with PointCorp making a bundle off providing mercenary services not just abroad, but at home too (“we were the first in New Orleans after Katrina”). The film is too plot-heavy to do either real justice, but I appreciated a final, elegiac printing press montage.
State of Play, like Soderbergh´s Traffic, was originally a well-regarded British miniseries. Six parts, an hour each, roughly 3 times the material. But you´d never guess that from this movie, which feels tight and well-paced, bolstered by (outside of Affleck´s senator) well-developed characters. Macdonald (Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland) is a talented filmmaker and he´s pieced the film together well, though I can only guess what has been lost in the transition.
Can´t-miss premise: the 1976 blind wine-tasting competition in France, with French judges, that declared a Napa Valley wine as the victor and brought respectability to California wines.
Yet miss (if slightly so) is exactly what Randall Miller´s Bottle Shock does. It accomplishes the feat by taking attention away from the high-profile competition and the British wine snob who arranged it, and focusing on the dull, factory-made story about the American father and son who produced the wine.
Bottle Shock starts out promising, with scenes in a Paris wine shop run by Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) and patronized by a lone ‘customer´, Chicagoan Maurice (Dennis Farina), who tells Steven of the promising wines coming from California, and convinces him to arrange the competition to drum up business for his shop.
Meanwhile, in Napa Valley, hard-working vintner Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) is attempting to perfect his chardonnay at Chateau Montelena, a vineyard he has left a promising law career for and just mortgaged. He´s helped aided by long-haired hippie son Bo (Chris Pine), Gustavo (Freddy Rodríguez), and sexy intern Sam (Rachael Taylor). When Spurrier shows up to sample the chardonnay, Jim is hesitant, though the rest of the Valley is eager to force their wines on him.
All is well and good until the second act and most of the third: Spurrier and wines are all but forgotten as the film focuses on relationships at the vineyard: bull-headed Jim and drifting son Bo, who are actually put in the boxing ring in a number of scenes that reek of screenwriter´s contrivance; and fledgling romances between Bo and Sam, and Gustavo and Sam, and the friendship between Bo and Gustavo. These (presumably) real-life characters have been so overwritten they come off as fictional clichés.
It´s a shame, too, because there´s one real reason to see Bottle Shock: Alan Rickman, who is absolutely in his element as Spurrier, the dry, cynical wine snob. He plays off the Napa Valley residents beautifully, and brings the only real comedy to Bottle Shock: the film shines when he´s on-screen, doldrums set in when he isn´t. Pine went on to play Captain Kirk (and play him well) in Star Trek, but he lacks charisma and looks fairly ridiculous here.
Cinematography by Mike Ozier is frequently beautiful: the film genuinely feels like a California vineyard. Period detail is non-existent. There´s a lot to like in Bottle Shock, but it´s no Sideways: the film is ultimately most memorable for its failure to do justice to the real-life story.
If you ever wanted to see the folksy residents of the Coen Bros.´ Fargo in a formula romantic comedy, here´s your chance: Jonas Elmer´s New in Town transports a Miami city girl to Minnesota, and leaves no Harve Gunderson or “don´tcha know” unturned. The formula works, I suppose, which is why we see so many of these films. But if you don´t find much wrong with New in Town, you´re not looking hard enough: this is a creative void that represents a lot of what is wrong in contemporary cinema.
Renée Zellweger stars as Lucy Hill, high-powered executive for a big food corporation who accidentally accepts a tour of duty in New Ulm, Minnesota, to oversee the downsizing of the town´s big factory. There she meets characters named Blanche Gunderson (Siobhan Fallon) and Tracy Van Uuden (Frances Conroy), factory foreman Stu Kopenhafer (J.K. Simmons) and head of the labor union Ted Mitchell (Harry Connick, Jr.). Queue endless jokes about how cold it is in Minnesota, and how dern funny them people talk. You betcha.
After five or ten minutes, you´ll know exactly where this film is going, and there are precisely no surprises along the way. Is there any doubt that that the townspeople and Lucy will clash, then gradually come to accept each other? That Lucy and Ted will forge a relationship that unfolds in the exact same manner? That the plant will be saved in the end? The details might be interesting, but driving the plot here are vague corporate products, tapioca pudding, and North Face product placement.
This is a very specific story that has come to bat a number of times before: your usual ‘fish out of water´ comedy mixed with the plot of said fish shutting down the native´s big factory. This plot needs to have a certain ending to work, yet the Hollywood formula keeps carrying it in the opposite direction; therefore it´s almost never worked, the lone possible exception being Tennessee Williams´ This Property is Condemned and Sydney Pollack´s campy film version starring Robert Redford and Natalie Wood.
A talented cast is mostly wasted. J.K. Simmons is usually a reliable comedy actor, but he´s hidden here beneath a thick beard and an even thicker accent. The accents in the film are so exaggerated for comedic effect, it´s as if Fargo were a penetrating documentary.