‘State of Play’ a pale version of British miniseries

Posted April 23, 2009, at 6:52 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:57 a.m.

In theaters

STATE OF PLAY, directed by Kevin Macdonald, written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray, 127 minutes, rated PG-13.

The new Kevin Macdonald movie, “State of Play,” is based on David Yates’ politically charged 2003 British miniseries of the same name. That show was set in London, it starred David Morrissey, Bill Nighy, Kelly Macdonald, James McAvoy and a host of others, and in spite of its six-hour running time (divided into six episodes), it raced by on the rails of its intelligent script and terrific performances.

For those who saw the series and enjoyed it, keep those memories alive and savor them. For those who haven’t seen it, it makes for a swell rental. And for those of either party who are curious about this new, condensed Hollywood take on that tale, well, the news is mixed.

From Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray’s script, “State of Play” suffers from a weak first half before it ramps into a more compelling second half. It is, perhaps, the first newspaper weepy; so justifiably glum about the declining state of the newspaper industry, it goes out of its way — maybe a bit too far — to remind us why newspapers and good journalists matter.

In a world overcome by amateur blogs and news Web sites that update stories on the fly (and with increasing levels of inaccuracy), here is a movie about the importance of eschewing the impulse of stitching together a story with breaking news in favor of getting the whole story right the first time.

That’s an admirable point of view, but instead of being the backbone of “State of Play,” the core story of which really is about a government cover-up, Macdonald gets sidetracked by industry sentiment, which steals away some of his story’s tension.

In the film, Russell Crowe is Cal McAffrey, a reporter with a catcher’s mitt for a face and the biggest hair in the room who works for fictional newspaper The Washington Globe. Physically, Cal is a wreck, but he has a sharp mind for news, which is unfortunate for his old college pal, U.S. Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck who looks too young for the college angle to be believable), whose research assistant commits suicide as the movie opens.

Or did she? Ushered into the plot are complications and implications, from a corrupt conglomerate called PointCorp to an affair Cal once had with Collins’ wife (Robin Wright Penn, wasted), to a madman eager to have blood on his hands, to Cal’s working relationship with Della, a saucy blogger played by Rachel McAdams.

Della wants to be a real journalist. Guess who’s going to help her get her game on? Meanwhile, a marvelous Helen Mirren is cast as the Globe’s editor-in-chief. Her newspaper is hemorrhaging money, but she nevertheless believes enough in Cal to stop the presses so he can bring in the story. In this climate, it’s something of a stretch to believe that she would do so, but since “State of Play” has romantic ideas about what the newspaper industry used to be before technology got in its way, it just goes with it.

With a perfectly smarmy Jason Bateman and Jeff Daniels in supporting roles, “State of Play” has no shortage of good performances. In fact, only Affleck strains to achieve what everyone else here manages so seamlessly: credibility. When he seethes with anger, images of a disgruntled puppy come to mind, which makes for moments of low laughter. But that’s not the case for the rest of the cast, who go a long way in lifting this otherwise so-so throwback as much as they do.

Grade: B-

On Blu-ray disc

TAKING LIVES, directed by D.J. Caruso, written by Jon Bokenkamp, based on the novel by Michael Pye, 103 minutes, rated R.

In spite of a benign title and the fact that it inexplicably tries to pass Quebec City off as Montreal, the grisly thriller “Taking Lives,” now out on Blu-ray disc, initially creates a controlled mood of tense unease.

In it, a drifter is brutally murdered by a young man who quickly assumes his victim’s identity. Twenty years later, the bodies start to pile up again.

Unable to get a handle on the case, the baffled French Canadian police seek the help of Angelina Jolie’s Illeana Scott, a savvy FBI profiler who can lie in a victim’s grave and give specifics on how they got there.

Of course, she can — it is, after all, Jolie in the role. And not surprisingly, Illeana isn’t exactly welcomed by some of the cops working the case. Still, she proves invaluable when an eyewitness to a new murder is called in for questioning. His name is James Coster (Ethan Hawke), he’s an art dealer and how he recounts what he saw generates a mystery. Either he’s the murderer or he’s in danger of being hunted down by the real murderer, who might just be an angry tough guy played by Keifer Sutherland.

Which is it? That’s anyone’s guess, though Illeana does side with Coster, which sets the movie up for a steamy romance, several well-done chase scenes and one noteworthy jolt that lifts the movie. Unfortunately, just when it appears this is going to be a reasonably smart, atmospheric thriller of note, the film jackknifes into a series of audacious plot twists that break it in two.

The ending is particularly absurd, a major cheat with a mean edge that goes too far, doesn’t add up, and which brings the movie down.

Grade: C

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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