Saturday, May 30, 2009

Review - Synecdoche, New York

For about an hour, I've been sitting in front of a blank computer screen wondering how on earth I'm going to review
Synecdoche, New York. In that respect, perhaps I can empathise slightly with the film's central character, Caden Cotard, who is also trying to make sense of something that's too large and complex to bring to order. In my case, it's just a movie, but for him it's life itself. After laying the foundations for some of the past decade's most memorable films, with his screenplays for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Charlie Kaufman has elected to make his directorial debut with arguably his most ambitious work to date. Synecdoche, New York is a meditation on life, ageing, and death, into which the writer seems to have crammed every idea and wild notion he could muster. Without a Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry taking the reins, this is essentially Kaufman in his purest, most undiluted form, and maybe that's its biggest flaw.

Attempting to summarise
Synecdoche, New York's plot is perhaps a foolish endeavour, but I'll try. Caden Cotard (a downbeat Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theatre director living in Schenectady, New York, the film's title being one of many puns Kaufman includes in his script. Like most of this screenwriter's leading men, Caden is one of life's losers; he is obsessed with the idea that he is dying, shuffling morosely from doctor to doctor in search of diagnoses, and it's little wonder his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) has decided to leave him, taking their four year-old daughter and departing for Germany. When Caden is awarded a MacArthur genius grant, he sees it as his chance for redemption; an opportunity to finally create the theatrical masterpiece that will validate his existence. He hires a huge, abandoned warehouse, in which he begins rehearsing a production based on his own life, building a life-sized replica of New York within this cavernous space, and casting actors and actresses as himself and the people around him. He is dedicated to finding some kind of essential truth in this vast concept, and he fastidiously distributes notes to his cast, as he attempts to control and refine every single aspect of the play, and as the project consumes his life, Kaufman refuses to distinguish between Caden's genuine and imagined reality. He eventually starts casting actors to play the actors he originally hired, and the film continues to pile layer upon layer, until we – like Caden – completely lose track of where we are and how this all began. "When are we going to get an audience in here?" an extra asks at one point, "It's been 17 years."

Charlie Kaufman has an extraordinarily fertile, imaginative mind, and
Synecdoche, New York is liberally decorated with odd, surreal details that only he could have conjured. Samantha Morton's Hazel lives in a house that is constantly on fire, a detail nobody seems perturbed by; Hope Davis' omnipresent therapist wears too-tight shoes that cause blisters and sores to appear on her feet; Tom Noonan stalks Caden for years, perfecting his mannerisms before auditioning for the starring role in his play; Caden reads the diary his daughter left behind aged 4, and somehow the entries continue into her adulthood. Unfortunately, Kaufman's onslaught of ideas never coheres, and the film settles into a disjointed rhythm, with too many underdeveloped notions acting as distractions from the main theme. There's a heartbreaking study of a life unfulfilled buried somewhere within this film's labyrinthine structure, but despite being enhanced by individual moments of great beauty, I never felt the same gut-level emotional pull that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation or Being John Malkovich exerted.

So could Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry have spun gold from Kaufman's opus? I'm sure their presence would have been helpful, at least. It is well known that Jonze put
Being John Malkovich through a long and rigorous editing process before turned Kaufman's screenplay into the film we know and love today, and that kind of editorial discipline is sorely lacking here. As a director, Kaufman is unfocused and indulgent, and although his staging of many sequences does impress, the lugubrious pace he imposes on the film sucks any real sense of life out of it. Hoffman's performance doesn't help matters either. He plays Cotard in a single, unwavering register of self-regarding despair, and the more we get to know him over the course of the film, the harder it gets to care about him. This lack of a central character leaves the film with an emotional void at its heart that Kaufman can't fill, not even with the superb collection of actresses he has surrounded Hoffman with. Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson, Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis and Dianne Wiest all bring their usual quality to bear on their characterisations, but their efforts are ultimately in vain.

And yet, as disappointed as I was with this film, I can't quite dismiss it. Charlie Kaufman is one of the most interesting and creative artists working in American cinema right now, and even if his directorial debut is overlong, dense and bloated, there's enough going on in its weird world to keep it nagging away in the back of my mind. A second viewing didn't greatly improve the film for me, but I did find myself considering different aspects of it, and thinking about it in a fresh light, so perhaps in time I will find a way to burrow into the meaning at the core of the picture. I don't know if this review has got anywhere near a proper evaluation of
Synecdoche, New York, and in truth, I'm not sure I'm capable of it. I know people who have taken this film to their hearts, declaring it as a masterpiece, and I know people who have walked out of screenings in anger and frustration. This is a film you're going to need to see for yourself, probably more than once, and only after that will you know if it means everything to you or nothing. Charlie Kaufman has put his heart, mind and soul on screen for us; it's messy, complicated and fascinating. Make of it what you will.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Review - Shirin

Abbas Kiarostami's
Shirin is inspired by an ancient Iranian love story, but we don't get to see any recreations of this tale in his latest experimental feature. Instead, the great director trains his camera on a cinema audience who are watching the drama unfold on screen, and through a series of close-ups, we observe the female viewers as they respond to what they see; laughing, flinching, crying, or smiling enigmatically. The film is lit solely by the flickering light of the cinema screen, and as it moves fluidly from face to face, it builds a strange cumulative power. Kiarostami has played with notion of watching the watchers before, in his short contribution to the 2007 anthology To Each His Own Cinema, but here he daringly stretches the conceit to feature length. The result is another challenging but rewarding piece of work from this consistently remarkable filmmaker.

There are 112 women in Kiarostami's audience overall (including one special guest, whose identity I won't reveal). A few men can be glimpsed sitting threateningly in the shadows, but Kiarostami elects to focus solely on the female contingent; and who could blame him? There's an almost comical distinction between the reactions of the male and female viewers, as the men sit with uniformly glum expressions, and the women display a vast array of emotions on their often strikingly beautiful faces. Who are these women, we wonder? How free are they to enjoy the film they're seeing? I was particularly struck by the sight of one who was wearing a huge bandage over her nose, between blackened eyes - what happened to her? We hear the soundtrack of the film in the background, and Kiarostami asks us to imagine the movie for ourselves as we see how it is affecting people. When we hear the sound of violence taking place in the film – screams and limbs being sliced – and see the women averting their eyes or covering their mouths in horror, the effect is more powerful than most explicit scenes of horror would be.
Shirin is perhaps the most successful example yet of Kiarostami's oft-stated desire to create a work that speaks to each viewer individually, allowing everyone who sees it to create their own version of the movie in their mind.

Kiarostami seems to have lost interest in conventional, narrative filmmaking at this stage in his career, and is instead exploring the boundaries of cinematic form.
Ten was told entirely from the point-of-view of a car dashboard, while Five was even more minimalist, comprising of mostly empty landscape views. Like that film, Shirin runs the risk of being dismissed as an indulgence more suited to a gallery installation than a cinema, but that would be a grossly unfair judgement. Shirin will undoubtedly not be to everyone's taste, but it is oddly mesmerising, and in its intimate observation of human emotions, it gets at the essence of why we go to the movies in the first place. In turning his camera on the audience, Kiarostami is inviting us to see cinema itself in a new light.

Review - I Love You, Man

I Love You, Man has everything you expect from a modern romantic comedy. It has two characters – one uptight and awkward, the other free-spirited and laid-back – who meet cute and quickly fall for each other. The film then charts their growing closeness through a number of comical situations, before throwing a late spanner in the works that threatens the relationship. Hell, the movie even has a last-minute dash to a wedding – it couldn't be more conventional – but I Love You, Man, as you might have guessed from the title, is not a story of boy meets girl. John Hamburg's film is the latest in the increasingly prominent subgenre of the 'Bromance' – films that celebrate male friendship and camaraderie as much as the pursuit of the opposite sex.

In fact, the central subject of
I Love You, Man is the nature of male companionship. Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) has always been more of a 'girlfriend guy', happier spending time in female company, watching a romantic movie, than drinking with buddies at poker nights or football matches. When Peter proposes to Zooey (Rashida Jones) at the start of the picture, all of her friends comment on what a great catch he is, but the wedding preparations highlight a curious gap in Peter's life. As they finalise the guest lists, Peter realises that he doesn't have any close male friends, and as such, his choices for the position of Best Man are severely limited. In desperation, Peter begins scouting around for friends, which raises an interesting question – just how does an adult male go about the business of finding new companions? I Love You, Man's solution is to set Peter up on a series of 'man-dates'; a ghastly process resulting in embarrassment (joining squeaky voiced Joe Lo Truglio at a football game), misunderstanding (being kissed by Thomas Lennon), or outright humiliation (vomiting all over Jon Favreau).

Peter's search ends during an open house at Lou Ferrigno's Hollywood home, which Peter is trying and failing to sell. One of the attendees is Sydney Fife (Jason Segal), who openly admits to Peter that he has no interest in buying the property; he's simply there for the free food and the chance to chat up divorcees. Sydney's honesty and lack of pretence instantly strikes a chord with Peter, and the relationship between the pair resembles a comic spin on that shared by Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in
Fight Club. Like Tyler Durden, Sydney is the epitome of unabashed masculinity. He's completely free to do what he wants, when he wants, and he indulges all of his primal urges without a second thought. He even has a 'jerk-off station' in his garage, which he showcases openly; everybody masturbates, he explains, so why are people ashamed of it? In standard fashion, Peter responds to Sydney's attitude by being more relaxed in his approach to life, and more confident in his own ability to succeed at work. Zooey is a supportive presence, until Peter's friendship with Sydney begins to place a strain on their relationship, leading to the expected third-act crisis.

The predictable nature of
I Love You, Man doesn't really matter, though. The film is hilarious, warm, and it has a roster of great performances, which is enough to set it several notches above the average entry in this genre. Following his success with last year's Role Models, Rudd once again proves he's the best comic lead in the business right now, possessing both superb timing and an innate likability. He throws himself heedlessly into embarrassment – his attempts at 'cool' lingo are excruciating – and he plays off Segal perfectly. For his part, Segal – who appeared slightly out of his depth in Forgetting Sarah Marshall – settles comfortably into the role of Sydney, and there's an interesting ambiguity throughout about the true nature of this character, at least until the good-natured finale. The 'Bromance' may never reach the widespread popularity of the rom-com, but under John Hamburg's focused direction, I Love You, Man emerges as an unusually satisfying and insightful comedy.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Review - Crank: High Voltage

The last time we saw Chev Chelios (Jason Statham), he was falling out of a helicopter without a parachute, which is never a good idea, and heading towards the concrete with alarming velocity. That's how Crank ended, and it was a climax that surely negated any possibility of a sequel, but filmmakers Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who take joint writing and directing credits, have little time for plausibility. So here comes Crank: High Voltage, an unnecessary sequel that begins with Chev's body being scooped up off the road moments after the first film came to a close. He's still alive, though – as the poster's witty tagline puts it: "He was dead, but he got better" – and when he awakes to discover his heart has been stolen...well, wouldn't you be a bit pissed off?

The gimmick that drove Crank was a fast-acting poison that Statham's character had been injected with, which would kill him unless he managed to keep the adrenaline pumping through his body at all times; it was like a version of Speed with the bus being replaced by a near-indestructible human being. The film took its cue from this premise, and maintained a ridiculously frenetic pace, as if Neveldine and Taylor were afraid of the consequences should they slow down; and as Chev did whatever it took to keep his heart racing, the film bowled ahead with an admirable, if misplaced, energy. I always felt that Crank somehow never quite hit the absurd heights it was clearly straining for, and while I enjoyed its invention and tongue-in-cheek tone, I spent much of the picture wishing it was a little more fun. In the end, I wrote Crank off as a funny curiosity; one of those strange little oddities that Hollywood occasionally burps out, and wondered what the directorial duo would do next.

Dispiritingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, they've tried to milk a little more juice out of an idea which was running dry at the end of the first film. Crank: High Voltage is a sequel few people really wanted, and nobody really needed, and in its efforts to outdo the original in every aspect, it quickly outstays its welcome. Without a heart to keep ticking this time around, Chev must instead keep his electronic substitute charged by any means necessary, so we see him attaching jumper cables to his tongue, wearing an electric dog collar, and rubbing against strangers to generate static electricity. It's a neat enough idea, and at times it tosses up some amusing results, but nothing feels as fresh this time around, and the filmmakers too often rehash ideas from the first film in a bigger way. Once again, Chev and his girlfriend (Amy Smart) have sex in front of a large crowd (this time with horses galloping by for good measure), and Dwight Yoakam performs much the same function in his lacklustre cameo that he did first time around. It's not unusual for a sequel to reheat an old recipe, of course, but the film's excesses are less tolerable this time round, and while there are flashes of ingenuity (the Godzilla fight is a rare original moment), its desire to top itself in every scene eventually grows dull.

However, what kills Crank: High Voltage is not so much the content as the tone of the thing. Crank was hardly a model of sensitivity, but this film is just ugly and cheap. It revels in its misogyny, homophobia and racism, desperate to elicit shocked laughter from the viewer, and packing almost every scene with nasty-minded violence (a man raped with a lubricated shotgun, a stripper shot in the breasts causing bloody silicone to ooze out) and lazy cultural stereotyping. What on earth is David Carradine doing here, under Fu Manchu makeup as a character named Poon Dong? And I felt sorry for Bai Ling, whose "me sucky long time" whore is an embarrassment. But above all, I was disappointment in Jason Statham, going through the motions in a film that doesn't do him any favours. I'm a fan of Statham's. He has a striking, athletic screen presence, and in the Transporter films he has proven himself as an action star of note, but Crank: High Voltage is a blot on his CV. If Jason Statham really wants to maximise his film potential, he should probably steer clear of scripts that ask him to utter dialogue like, "Did someone drop some change, or did I just hear a chink?"

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Review - Observe and Report

Plenty of media attention has been focused on Observe and Report's most contentious scene in recent weeks, so let's get it out of the way right at the start. What happens is this: bipolar security guard Ronnie (Seth Rogen) finally persuades beautician Brandi (Anna Faris) to go out to dinner with him, after spending many days at the mall admiring her from afar. Brandi gets through the evening by knocking back shots and downing Ronnie's medication, and she can barely walk by the time he drives her home at the end of the night. Even after she throws up outside her house, Ronnie still gazes at her with the same insatiable desire, and the scene then cuts to her bedroom, where she lies unconscious – with vomit staining her cheek and pillow – while Ronnie pounds away on top of her. Is this rape? That's the question which has been asked most often in relation to Observe and Report, but the issue is clouded by the scene's punchline, when Ronnie pauses to see if Brandi's OK, prompting her to drawl, "Why are you stopping, motherfucker?"

Writer/director Jody Hill uses that line to get him off the hook, but it makes the scene, like so much in Observe and Report, nothing more than an empty provocation. This deeply weird film spends a lot of its time doing things that will get a reaction from the audience, but its relentlessly transgressive approach doesn't actually produce a lot of laughs. This is despite committed performances from a talented comic cast, including Rogen who plays Ronnie with a Travis Bickle-like intensity. He's a deluded obsessive who imagines himself as a hero, and he sees an opportunity to shine when a flasher begins stalking the parking lot. If he can catch the perpetrator before detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), then surely he can win Brandi's heart. He assembles his team, including his lisping Latino sidekick (Michael Peña), and a pair of Chinese twins ("If one of you gets killed, God gave me another one"), but Ronnie is a loose cannon rather than a team player, and watching him slide towards violence and drug-fuelled mania is not much fun at all.

There are flashes of likability in some of the supporting roles. Faris is a superb comic actress, and she deserves a better stage than this (Her brilliant performance in Smiley Face remains unreleased here, while shit like this plays at the multiplexes), and Colette Wolfe is a disarmingly pleasant presence as a disabled Christian barista. But Hill treats all of these characters with the same sneering condescension and contempt, and his desire to shock constantly torpedoes his film's comic potential. The director may claim to be satirising some aspect of American life with his unbalanced, gun-toting hero, or his view of malls as dispiriting, soulless places, but his is a toothless satire, and all Observe and Report leaves us with is a nasty taste in the mouth. It's a comedy without laughs, and a violent odyssey without consequences. As one character states, after eavesdropping on Ronnie's humiliation, "I thought this would be funny, but it's actually kind of sad."

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Review - Wendy and Lucy

I fear I've done Wendy and Lucy a disservice. When I first saw the film during last year's London Film Festival, I described it as "a modest but memorable piece of work", as if the film's small scale was something to be held against it, something preventing it from ever being considered "great." But if the film is such a minor achievement, then why did it stay in my thoughts and my heart long after the screening? After a second screening of the film I've concluded that Wendy and Lucy is the perfect size for the story it needs to tell. While other filmmakers are writing the cinematic equivalent of novels, Kelly Reichardt trades in short stories – focused, intimate dramas, packing an emotional punch that belies their scale.

Like Reichardt's earlier film
Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy is a story about two characters going on a journey, although they don't manage to get very far during the picture's 80 minutes. All we know about Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her pet dog is that they have come from Indiana and their destination is Alaska, where Wendy hopes to find some steady work. We don't know how long they have been on the road, but when Wendy wakes up in the car that they both sleep and travel in, and sleepily begins pulling Lucy's breakfast out of the trunk, before finding a public toilet to wash in, it has the feel of a process she has gone through many times before. As played by Williams, with short dark hair framing her open face, it's hard to believe that Wendy could survive for long on the open road. She looks far too delicate and frail, and you instantly feel for her. When she arrives in Oregon, where Wendy and Lucy is set, things quickly begin to fall apart for her. Her car breaks down, necessitating repairs she can't afford, and when she shoplifts a few items to feed Lucy, she is caught and arrested. The biggest hammer blow comes when Wendy is processed and finally released; she returns to the spot where she left Lucy, and her beloved companion is gone.

A lost dog could easily be used as an emotional shortcut, but Reichardt keeps
Wendy and Lucy's emotions in check. The sight of Wendy wandering the unfamiliar streets, forlornly crying Lucy's name, is upsetting in itself, but the real sadness of the film comes from how lost and helpless Wendy is, and how cruel people can be to those already cut off at the bottom of the social ladder. "If people can't afford dog food then they shouldn't have a dog" states the shop assistant who catches Wendy in the act, without even attempting to consider the position she is in, and when she calls home, in need of a friendly voice, her sister cuts her off before she can ask for money. In such an environment, simple acts of kindness can feel like a drink of water in the desert, and unexpected assistance comes from an elderly security guard (Wally Dalton), who offers Wendy the use of his phone, words of advice and – above all – a friendly ear.

Reichardt imbues her film with a sure sense of place, and her measured, minimalist directorial style draws the viewers into Wendy's story. Everything about
Wendy and Lucy feels natural and true, the whole cast appear to be completely comfortable in their characters' skin, and the narrative has the resonance of a tale that could be occurring anywhere. Wendy and Lucy is quiet and contemplative, but through its accumulation of mundane details and seemingly banal encounters, Reichardt gradually builds a hauntingly affecting portrait of a life lived on the margins, and she forces us to care deeply about Wendy's fate. As such, I have been moved to tears by the film both times I have watched it; once, when the security guard offers Wendy a couple of dollars to help her on her way, and later at the picture's wrenchingly sad climax. Reichardt doesn't need music or any other external manipulation to elicit to manipulate us into feeling this way; it's all there to be seen in the subtle reactions on Michelle Williams' face. Her performance is extraordinary – in a just world she would have received Oscar recognition for it – but even if Wendy and Lucy was too small scale to trouble the Academy voters, there's now no doubt in my mind that this is one of the great films of the year.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

April Round-Up

Monsters vs. Aliens
Monsters! Aliens! 3D! DreamWorks' new animated offering seems like a pretty hard package to mess up, and yet filmmakers Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon have done just that, turning in a lazy, quip-laden offering that commits the same crimes as the duo's earlier Shark Tale and Shrek 2. Badly stretched even at a brisk 90 minutes, the script is little more than a succession of gags, one-liners and tired pop culture references – some of which hit their mark, most of which don't – and the choppy plot is poorly conceived and unsatisfying. One sequence set on the Golden Gate Bridge does impress, but for all of its spectacle the film is bereft of imagination, and the characterisation is particularly disappointing. The only figure who manages to raise a couple of chuckles is Seth Rogen's BOB, and that has more to do with the actor's delivery than the character itself. The 3D is effective, although it's not as wholly immersive as it was in the beautifully crafted Bolt (which outdoes this shoddy effort in every single department), and even the extra dimension can't lend any depth to this empty, disposable product.

Tony Manero
This curious film from Chile stars Alfredo Castro as Raúl, a sociopathic nobody who is obsessed with John Travolta's Saturday Night Fever character. Raúl dreams of performing Manero's famed dance routine on a local TV talent show, but he needs to kill in order to finance his ambition, and we are invited to view his story as a microcosm of the ruthlessness prevalent under Pinochet's regime. This allegorical angle is interesting, but not quite interesting enough to carry a film with an emotional void at its centre. Castro, who looks a little like a depressed Al Pacino, plays his character in a single register, and Raúl never comes to life as a compelling protagonist. Tony Manero is occasionally brutal – one early murder comes out of nowhere and is unblinkingly shot – and even when Raúl isn't committing crimes, the film has plenty of incident that will leave an unpleasant aftertaste, such as Raúl's failed sexual encounters, or his spiteful act of defecation. Writer/director Pablo Larrain possesses a singular vision and he had the balls to follow through on the darkness of his story, but he doesn't give us sufficient reason to go there with him. So much of Tony Manero seems aimed at repelling its audience, and it frequently succeeded in pushing me away.

The Damned United
Peter Morgan and Michael Sheen have carved out quite a comfortable little niche for themselves with their semi-fictional explorations of famous figures' private lives, and after turning Tony Blair and David Frost into appealing mainstream entertainments, their latest offering tackles Old Big 'Ead himself: Brian Clough. Cutting back and forth between Clough's rise to prominence at Derby County and his disastrous 44-day stint at Leeds United, The Damned United sticks closely to the structure of David Peace's novel while lightening the tone, which was a necessary move. Whereas Peace wallowed in the darkness and misery of Clough's situation, Morgan and director Tom Hooper have produced a polished and affectionate drama which is built upon two contrasting relationships. The film's emotional core is provided by Clough's bond with his assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), which contrasts with the deep rivalry he shared with former Leeds manager Don Revie (Colm Meany), and the performances across the board are excellent. The Damned United is impressively shot, with Ben Smithard delivering some vivid and atmospheric visuals, and the picture is an effortlessly slick mover, but it's Sheen who really holds things together. He once again proves that he's an excellent mimic, but he doesn't settles for mere mimicry, finding a resonance in the vulnerability and self-doubt lying under Clough's legendary arrogance. He's great to watch, but I do think Sheen needs to start thinking about roles outside of this field, to avoid being typecast as the go-to biopic guy, and to prove his versatility in other ways. Will the real Michael Sheen please stand up?

There can surely be few more pertinent or difficult subjects for a documentary filmmaker to tackle than religion, and that's why Religulous is such a frustrating experience. Larry Charles' film follows American comedian Bill Maher as he travels the world, exploring a variety of religions, and pitting his own sense of doubt against the blind faith shown by those he meets. Maher is a funny – if rather smug – guide, and Religulous is a very funny film, but one wonders how amusing it is meant to be. There's a tension between Maher's gags and Charles' jokey captions, and the often serious nature of the discussions being held between Maher and the people he meets. Moreover, the film's frantic desire to fit as much into its running time as possible means it only scratches the surface of most of the issues it touches upon, and it frequently feels haphazard in its construction – surely the time spent talking to a pothead in Amsterdam could have been put to better use by expanding on some of the film's more interesting digressions? The net result is a movie that is a little too glib and eager to please for its own good, and it doesn't do enough to build towards Maher's big climactic speech, leaving it feeling tacked-on and lacking in weight. I enjoyed Religulous while I was watching it, and it certainly asks the right questions even if it doesn't hang around for the answers, but I couldn't help feeling that a much better movie could have been edited together from the footage Charles and Maher shot.

State of Play
State of Play is not a particularly exciting, interesting or imaginative movie, but it is superbly acted and competently directed, and that's enough to set it apart from the average Hollywood thriller. Adapted from Paul Abbot's fine 2003 BBC drama, the film's biggest flaw lies in its attempt to squeeze a whole miniseries worth of action into a two-hour picture, making the story feel rushed and cluttered, hampered by twists and revelations that don't really convince. Similarly, the characterisations have been boiled down to their clichéd essence, but the actors filling those roles are good enough to make them feel like more than stereotypes. As the old-fashioned, honest Washington Globe reporter, Russell Crowe gives his best performance in years, and he has a nice chemistry with Rachel McAdams, who plays the newspaper's young political blogger. Much of State of Play feels like a lament for the old values of journalism being eroded by the instantaneous reaction of new media, and Helen Mirren is excellent as the newspaper's editor, who respects Crowe's instincts while knowing a sensational exclusive could drive up the Globe's flagging sales. Solid support is provided by Ben Affleck, Robin Wright Penn and a particularly good Jason Bateman, and Kevin MacDonald handles the drama in an efficient manner, but State of Play never comes close to providing the kind of excitement this director could generate in his documentary work. One Day in September and Touching the Void were masterful pieces of filmmaking, and in moving away from that field, I would have hoped MacDonald could graduate to something a little more edifying than classy hackwork like this.