State Of Play ****
A Hollywood remake of the BBC television drama of the same name (which was directed by David Yates, best known for his work on the last Harry Potter movie as well as all the upcoming ones), State Of Play may be a completely Americanised version of the story told in the series but its British connections have not entirely been severed with British production company Working Title being behind this glossy American remake and hopefully assuring that it doesn’t betray the key themes and messages of its British inspiration. At the helm is Kevin MacDonald who won much critical acclaim for his 2007 film The Last King Of Scotland and based on word of mouth from the film’s US release last week it seems that this film is another winner with the film critics for MacDonald although the underwhelming performance it has had at the box office suggests that the average moviegoer may not be as impressed as the average film critic.
Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is a brash newspaper reporter working for the Washington Globe who will do whatever it takes to get his story. He is investigating the story of a petty thief who has been gunned down in an alley while colleague Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) is investigating the death of the assistant of Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) in an apparent suicide. Collins just happens to be an old friend of McAffrey and Frye attempts to get an angle on her story from him. He is reluctant until he discovers that these two seemingly unrelated deaths may not be so unrelated after all. Spying a conspiracy waiting to be uncovered, McAffrey finds himself in the middle of the biggest story of his career and with rookie investigator Frye in tow he begins uprooting clues that lead him to a corporate cover-up full of insiders, informants, and assassins. But as he draws closer to the truth and faces increased pressure from editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), the relentless journalist must decide if it’s worth risking his life and selling his soul to get the ultimate story.
Effectively blending political thriller and journalistic thriller in the same manner as the 1976 Robert Redford/Dustin Hoffman classic All The President’s Men, State Of Play delivers everything you could possibly hope for from a thriller with such an acclaimed director and such an impressive ensemble cast as this. The performances are virtually all excellent, with Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams both being extremely convincing and sharing a believable on-screen reporter-reporter chemistry, and there is also a very good performance from Ben Affleck, an actor who has often been criticised for lack of acting ability (personally, though, I’ve found some of his past performances to be excellent as well) but delivers an emotive performance here, capturing the essence of a US senator type well. Helen Mirren is also very good even though she is rather underused. The cast also features Jeff Daniels, Robin Wright Penn and Jason Bateman. It is not just the acting that is of a high standard here though. With glossy production values, good cinematography and a strong script, co-written by Duplicity writer Tony Gilroy, Lions For Lambs writer Matthew Michael Carnahan and Breach writer Billy Ray, director MacDonald has successfully crafted a stylish and entertaining thriller that is packed full of suspense and plot twists and manages to be engaging for the duration. The intricately plotted storyline which combines elements of political scandal with corporate corruption and journalistic investigation is interesting and, for the most part, quite plausible. Only the ending is likely to defy anyone’s perceptions of realism but this will be down to the individual viewer. As a whole, State Of Play is a very well executed thriller that is both entertaining and quite thought provoking at times, and that doesn’t betray its inspiration, even if in the eyes of some viewers it may not match it.
The Uninvited ***½
2009 so far has been an extremely mediocre year for the horror genre with five horror movies having been released and not one of them being even half decent, even though this doesn’t seem to have bothered the majority of moviegoers as virtually all have performed well (at least by the standards of the horror genre) at the box office. The Uninvited is this year’s sixth horror film although with a decent cast and fairly promising trailers it looks like it has the potential to break the trend for poor quality scare flicks that 2009 seems to be experiencing.
Anna (Emily Browning) is a teenager who has spent ten months in an institution following a suicide attempt that came after the death of her mother in a fire. Finally returning home she is reconciled with father Steven (David Strathairn) and sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel), but is shocked to find that her mother’s former nurse Rachel (Elizabeth Banks) is now her father’s girlfriend and has moved in with them. As she tries to continue her recovery, Anna finds it seemingly impossible to let go of the past, having nightmares that seem to be trying to tell her something. And things only get worse as she begins having terrifying visions that suggest that her mother’s death was not an accident. Anna and Alex soon begin to suspect that Rachel may have murdered her mother in order to get to their father and that they may be next on her list. As they set about trying to prove their theory, however, Rachel seems determined to thwart them and a shocking revelation about what has really been going on determines to pull the family apart once and for all.
A remake of Korean horror film A Tale Of Two Sisters, The Uninvited follows in the footsteps of other American remakes of Asian horror films such as The Ring, The Grudge and The Eye. Fortunately, it follows in the footsteps of the two former films which were pretty good rather than the latter which was simply awful. Directors The Guard Brothers have crafted a horror film that is based more on suspense on psychological threat than the jumps or gore or many recent fright flicks, and this is one of the film’s major strengths. Right from the start they create an effective sense of impending dread and they provide the scares with well orchestrated sequences that create genuine suspense and tension instead of merely trying to make the audience jump. The scares here are real scares, the kind of which makes for a genuinely terrifying horror film and not the kind of which you forget straight after leaving the cinema. To give an idea of the effectiveness of the scares, in every other recent I have seen there was always someone laughing in the audience but not this time. The scares are heightened thanks to some good cinematography and the production values of this film in general are of a higher standard than the majority of recent horror movies. The inevitable plot twist also works. While it may be somewhat conventional and no doubt there will be some who will figure it out early on, it does come as quite a surprise and within the logic of the film it actually makes sense, not contradicting anything that has come before. The film also delivers in the acting department with strong performances from most of its cast members. Emily Browning, who is no stranger to horror having previously appeared in 2003’s also pretty good horror flick Ghost Ship, is very good as Anna, convincingly portraying the role of a traumatized teenager. Arielle Kebbel also delivers a good performance as sister Alex. Browning and Kebbel share a good sister-sister dynamic with their on-screen chemistry proving believable and sincere. Appearing on screen for the umpteenth time in year, Elizabeth Banks, an actress who some people may be growing tired of by now, actually delivers one of her best performances. As Rachel, she is suitably cold and silently threatening, but she portrays the role in such a way as to make you question what her character’s true motivations are, something which proves particularly effective considering the twist ending. The only weak link in the cast is the usually reliable David Strathairn who gets so little to do that his talent is just wasted here. This is not through any fault of his though, it’s just that the script requires very little of him. As far as the script goes, the storyline isn’t one of the most original and some of the typical horror clichés are present but they aren’t as predominant as in most modern horror films and don’t prevent the film from providing authentic scares. Overall, The Uninvited is never going to be remembered as a horror classic but it is still a very scary and enjoyable horror film that, given the sorry state of the horror genre as of late, is easily the best mainstream horror film in quite some time.
Observe And Report ½
There have been many cases in the past of multiple films with similar themes being released in close proximity to one another, Armageddon and Deep Impact being just one of many examples, and now there is yet another duo of films that follow this trend. Coming just over a month after the Kevin James starring Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Observe And Report is another comedy about an underappreciated security guard who gets his chance to be in the spotlight. The similarities with that film are obvious although both films are of a very different nature, the former being a light-hearted, good natured family friendly flick while the latter is a very dark and very adult film, and the headlining stars come from very different fields of comedy with Observe And Report featuring Seth Rogen, a comedian who this critic finds highly overrated and cannot understand why he is so popular with moviegoers. As such, whereas I enjoyed Paul Blart: Mall Cop when I went to see Observe And Report I really wasn’t that keen on observing and reporting it.
Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) is a mall security guard who has bi-polar affective disorder. He is underappreciated and dreams of becoming a police officer and escaping his mediocre life. The only thing in the mall that he doesn’t seem to hate is Brandi (Anna Faris), a ditzy blonde who works at the cosmetics counter but rebuts his advances. When the mall is plagued by a flasher who is turning the shopper’s paradise into his personal peep show, Ronnie thinks that it is finally his chance to show everyone what he is capable of by bringing the flasher to justice. When police Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) is brought in to close the case, Ronnie finds himself in a rush against time to catch the guy responsible before Harrison does. However, a spate of burglaries in the mall and his own aggressive tendencies threaten to ruin Ronnie’s moment of glory.
Plot-wise there are some distinct similarities between Observe And Report and Paul Blart: Mall Cop with the story developing and unraveling along very similar lines. However, while the basic principles may share something in common, the details most definitely do not, with this film’s content being of a very adult nature. It hardly seems like the characters can go for more than a few minutes without spouting profanities and the constant swearing just seems gratuitous, detracting from the film rather than adding anything to it. The violent and sexual content often seems just as gratuitous. The plot is paper thin, seemingly only existing to link together a series of gags, something that wouldn’t be too much of a problem if the gags were actually funny or had some charm to them, which they aren’t and which they don’t. Some will find the humour downright offensive in parts too. Only a few very brief moments even came close to raising a smile from this critic and more such moments would have gone some way to making the film marginally better than it is. Any positive things that could be said about this film are rendered completely redundant, however, by a date rape sequence which is sickening, offensive and not remotely funny. Any film that considers this kind of thing to be funny is really not worthy of praise and only someone with a twisted sense of humour is likely to get any laughs out of it. The problem isn’t just that the film isn’t funny, though, but also that the majority of the characters just aren’t remotely likeable. Seth Rogen, who I have never found to be that funny anyway, is almost despisable Ronnie, a character who does things and behaves in such a way that is virtually impossible to feel any sympathy for him, even when we are clearly supposed to. This isn’t necessarily through any fault of his, with the way his character has been written largely to blame, but it doesn’t change the fact that he isn’t that good anyway. The once great Ray Liotta is transformed into a farce here with this film being a complete waste of the talent of a genuinely gifted actor. At the very least, though, it is easy to empathise with his character when he shouts at Rogen’s. Anna Faris, an actress who has shown herself to be very talented, is reduced to a stereotype here, again making for a very unlikeable character. The only performance in the film that has any charm at all is from Collette Wolfe who has a relatively small role as Nell, a mall employee who forms a close friendship with Ronnie. She is actually quite a delightful screen presence and it’s a real shame that she had to be in such an awful film as this when she could do so much better. All in all, Observe And Report is pretty much a complete failure as a comedy and this isn’t helped by the fact that there doesn’t even seem to be a point to it all. No doubt there are people who will actually enjoy the film but it if you like your comedies to be clean, inoffensive and actually funny, don’t Observe And Report this film, just re-watch Paul Blart: Mall Cop instead.
Reviews by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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