Sidetracked ‘State of Play’ loses some of its tension

state of play 2.JPG
state of play 2.JPG
Posted Sept. 04, 2009, at 7:21 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:57 a.m.

“State of Play” DVD, Blu-ray disc: This 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 and with too much of a heavy hand — to remind us why newspapers and good journalists matter. In a world overcome by amateurish blogs and news sites updating their news 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 by breaking news in favor of getting the whole story right the first time, then publishing it in print for the record. That’s an admirable point of view, but instead of being the backbone of “State of Play,” whose core story really is about a government coverup, the film gets sidetracked by industry sentiment, which steals away at least some of its tension. Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck and Helen Mirren star. Joining them are a perfectly smarmy Jason Bateman and Jeff Daniels in supporting roles. The film suffers from a weak first half before it ramps into a more compelling second half. As a bonus, it has no shortage of good performances. In fact, only Affleck strains to achieve what everyone else here manages so seamlessly — credibility. Here, he’s a U.S. Congressman, and when he seethes with anger, images of a disgruntled puppy breaking in new teeth come to mind. But that’s not the case for the rest of the cast, who lift this otherwise so-so throwback as much as they can. Rated PG-13. Grade: B-

“Catwoman” Blu-ray: A vain, choppy mess filled with unintentional laughs and groan-worthy moments. This over-the-top extravaganza (and it must be viewed that way in order to enjoy it) also is laced with sharp one-liners, style and sex appeal. When it’s mixed together, what’s left is a bizarre movie that is camp on a catnip high. The film stars Halle Berry as Catwoman and Sharon Stone as the witch out to deep-six her nine lives. Stone is Laurel Hedare, an evil, aging supermodel in possession of a beauty cream so powerful it can turn one’s skin into uncrackable marble — except that it’s also highly toxic. The film’s first third is awkward in how it chronicles how Berry’s bumbling Patience Philips becomes the outrageously confident Catwoman. Her love interest is officer Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt), who joins a long line of superhero suitors with initially no clue that the intended has the most unusual of side jobs. Since “Catwoman” would be lacking without a catfight between Berry and Stone, the film delivers one in its final moments. These two don’t go after each other just with their claws and fists, but with a string of quick, funny retorts that blister the screen, revealing the real strength of “Catwoman.” Some of the dialogue is genuinely clever. Widely considered a terrible movie, it’s a must-see for camp aficionados. Rated PG-13. Grade: B-

“Monster” Blu-ray: Charlize Theron found herself the role of a lifetime — and an Academy Award for best actress — by portraying Aileen Wuornos, the real-life serial killer and Florida prostitute who killed seven men before being captured, convicted and sent to death row in 1992, where she was electrocuted 10 years later. At first a romance, the movie dissolves into a horror show as director Patty Jenkins chronicles Wuornos’ dysfunctional relationship with her lover, Selby Wall (Christina Ricci). The film isn’t an apologia for Wuornos’ crimes, but Jenkins does attempt to understand them with a measure of empathy, particularly since they stem from an act of self-defense, when Wuornos was raped by one of her tricks. The movie is an uneasy roadmap of her violent undoing, a portrait of a woman with no moral center who chooses murder as a way to steal money and thus, in her mind, to stay in love. Theron’s performance is so powerful, calibrated and raw, it’s difficult to shake the pain, vulnerability and ultimately the rage she expresses onscreen. She’s fantastic here, never better, and her performance — wild, loose and unexpected, with the screen barely able to contain her — is something to behold. Rated R. Grade: A

“Snakes on a Plane” Blu-ray: A B-movie blast, with Samuel L. Jackson in the lead and the film itself coming through with what its title suggests — hundreds of venomous snakes on a plane. Their method of attack is grotesquely imaginative. Jackson is perfectly cast. Equally good is Julianna Margulies as a take-charge flight attendant who could give Karen Black a run for her money when it comes to how to run a plane thrown into turmoil. Together with these snakes, the comic-book bloodshed, and the laughs amid the dire circumstances, “Snakes on a Plane” makes the ongoing, depressing state of air travel look downright civilized in comparison. Rated R. Grade: A-

“Sphere” Blu-ray: Toward the end of Barry Levinson’s sorry sci-fi wreck, three of the film’s principal actors — Dustin Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson and Sharon Stone — gather in a circle, hold hands and agree to forget all that has taken place in the past two hours. They close their eyes and vow to forget it all. Any why not? Now out on Blu-ray, “Sphere” is the clumsy, unsatisfying story of an extraterrestrial spacecraft found deep beneath the Pacific Ocean. Covered with 300 years’ worth of coral, the ship still emits a distant hum — suggesting that it is intact and that life still might exist on board. When a scientific team of four — Hoffman, Jackson, Stone and Liev Schreiber — is called in by the government to investigate, the film wastes no time in getting them to the bottom of the ocean and aboard that ship, where filmgoers expect great suspense and action to be lurking at every corner. Too bad it isn’t. In spite of the huge, intoxicating golden sphere the team finds undulating on the spacecraft, the horrific potential in that sphere is never realized because director Levinson is too timid, too hurried, or too dense to explore what it all means. So lost in — or enamored by — the film’s mindless psychobabble, he forgets that his film is supposed to be a thriller, which it isn’t. Worse, Levinson has stolen from other films in a failed effort to make this one work. The film’s premise is ripped straight from Stanislaw Lem’s science-fiction classic “Solaris.” The scene in which the actors plunge into the abyss was handled with greater suspense and verve in James Cameron’s “The Abyss,” and the ship’s talking computer is nothing more than a dull, humorless rip-off of Hal in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” For a film that spends so much time in the ocean depths, “Sphere” goes out of its way to prove itself a film of little depth. Rated PG-13. Grade: D

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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