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"State of Play" *** (126 minutes)

Thursday June 11, 2009

Director Kevin MacDonald hasn't produced a large body of work but when he does, he's been spot-on! He started with his documentary on the 1972 Munich Olympic tragedy, "One Day In September" which won the AA Best Documentary in 1999. He then turned narrative with the wonderful 2004 "Touching the Void", followed by one of my favorites from 2006 "The Last King of Scotland", which won Forrest Whitaker the much deserved Best Actor Oscar.

His directorial record is intact with the intriguing newspaper/political thriller "State of Play". Not since "All The President's Men", in my opinion, has this genre been so successfully tackled. And coming at a time when the print media is being relegated more and more onto a computer screen instead of the daily fish wrap.

Based on the multi-award winning 6-part 2003 BBC series, the film stars the always excellent Russell Crowe (filling in after Brad Pitt bowed out) who tried to hide his pretty boy self with mucho extra pounds, and growing his hair into a greasy mess playing hardened newspaper reporter Cal Mcaffrey. He enters the scene after a series of seemingly unrelated killings around Washington D.C. Putting the pieces together, and maybe too quickly, he leads the investigation teamed with an audacious rookie reporter, played confidently by Rachel McAdams, who is more interested in posting immediate Internet gossip tidbits than in checking out the details typically done with the style and finesse of someone as seasoned as Mcaffrey. Caught up in all of this intrigue is a prominent congressman (Ben Affleck-whose performance is the weakest of the lot), whose role in all of this is never fully defined or realized until the end.

Present are some excellent supporting characters including Robin Wright Penn, who plays Affleck's wife and the talented Helen Mirren (who plays the editor of the fictitious Washington paper) who is more concerned with how fast the story can be scooped-no matter the cost-as her paper comes face to face with the dismal economic downturn that, nowadays, is being faced by the majority of print media.

The competent screenplay was a corroboration between Matthew Michael Carnahan ("The Kingdom" & "Lions for Lambs"), Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton" & "The Bourne Ultimatum") and Billy Ray ("Shattered Glass"). Alex Heffes, who did the non obtrusive score, also worked with MacDonald on "One Day In September" and "The Last King of Scotland".

What didn't work for me was that so much is crammed into the over 2 hour film that you'll need a scorecard to figure it all out-or at least a companion or two to run by some plot points with later on. And the speed in which Crowe solves so many things so quickly is probably due to shrinking the 6 hour mini-series into a third of its original running time.

Despite that, you will be entertained enough by a riveting story and some fine acting that it is easy to forgive its slight failings.

"Every Little Step" ***1/2 (96 minutes)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"A Chorus Line" was one of the first Broadway shows I ever saw, and still one of my all time favorites. It now gets a wonderful treatment in James D. Stern & Adam Del Deo's outstanding documentary that chronicles the casting of the 2005 30th year revival.

The film becomes a reality play (perfect in this reality-crazed era) about the play that chronicles 17 dancers vying for roles in an unnamed production. The original creator, the late Michael Bennett (who died from AIDS-related lymphoma in 1987), culled hundreds of hours of taped interviews with aspiring Broadway performers to form one of the most successful hits of all times (it was nominated for 12 Tonys and won 9).

What is most fascinating is that the directors obtained past footage of Bennett obtaining those tapes and we hear the actual words of the dancers who laid out their collective souls to the recordings that formed the basis of the play. The directors then take us through rare decades long footage and recent interviews to show how absolutely timeless the production is.

You'll watch and care for several of the auditioners as they go through each grueling step of the process-just as their characters do in the play. Then you'll root and cheer for your favorites-not knowing the final selection until the end.

Taking part in the current selection process is Bob Avian, the original choreographer in the 1975 production, and the original Connie, Baayork Lee, who is a character herself, as she does the lineups & teaches routines to each of the participants vying for a spot on the roster. Interspersed are snippets (and, boy, did I yearn for more!) of the landmark music that has become a staple of our musical culture.

So what you have is not only the history of one of the greatest musicals of all time, but also added rare insight into what it takes to thrive and succeed in a cutthroat business where being the most talented doesn't necessarily mean triumph in the end.

A must see by anyone who loves the theater and the human toil and drama behind it!

"Revanche" ***1/2 (121 minutes)

Sunday May 31, 2009

Time to take in one of the nominees for this year's AA Best Foreign Language film at The Charles Sunday Cinema Club. First time Austrian director/screenwriter Goetz Spielman has crafted a fascinating tale that never telescopes its script and surprises on many levels.

"Revanche" (revenge) begins with brothel assistant ex-con Alex (Johannes Krisch, in a mesmerizing performance) about to make love to his Ukrainian prostitute girlfriend, Tamara (Irina Potapenko). Both are tired of working for their opportunistic boss-especially after the boss offers Tamara an offer he believes she can't refuse. So, instead, Alex offers her a chance to escape their dismal existence by making a score robbing a bank.

In the process, their lives intersect with a good guy local policeman (Andreas Lust) and his wife (Ursula Strauss) whose encounter with them changes all their lives in ways you never see coming.

The story moves at a deliberate but fascinating pace as it slowly reveals the complexities of the characters and their circumstances. And the minimal soundtrack is a plus for such a story-driven film. If you're patient, you'll be amply rewarded with a tense, intelligent story, that will have you thinking twice about how human beings handle adversity and grief when they least expect it.

The always interesting former AFI director and chief executive officer, writer & lyricist (co-writer of Broadway's "Ain't Misbehavin"), Murray Horwitz, led the interesting discussion and Q & A at the film's conclusion.
Writer & lyricist Murray Horowitz with
CSC moderator Jonathan Pelevsky

"The Hangover" (** 1/2) (100 minutes)

Wednesday May 27, 2009

You would have thought they were giving out multiple canisters of laughing gas to the preview audience on their way in. I never heard such collective laughter in a theater since I've been attending movies! Me? Well, I counted 3 chuckles and one laugh out loud. Maybe it was because I saw an extended 3 minute trailer on TV a week before the screening-which showed every major joke contained in the feature length product. Maybe it was because I didn't find Zack Galifiankas' borderline pedophile character very funny. Maybe it was my mood. Whatever the reason, for me, this was this year's "Juno".

I must admit, the premise and setup looked promising. Four dudes (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Galifiankas, & Justin Bartha) travel to Vegas to celebrate Bartha's bachelor party. Once there, each is unknowingly slipped a roofie and wake up the next morning with that "hangover" in which no one can remember the night before. Not only that, they wake up to find a tiger in the bathroom, a baby in the closet, & a tooth missing from the mouth of one of the participants. Oh, and the groom is nowhere to be found. When they start to investigate they give their car keys to the attendant who proceeds to bring them a police car. The rest of the film has them trying to piece together the events that would explain all this-all the while trying to find the groom who is scheduled to be married the next day.

Add to the mix Heather Graham's heart-of-gold stripper character (who nerdy Helms finds himself married to the next day) and a cameo by Mike Tyson (playing his 'ol heart-of-gold self). However, the film never convinced me to laugh anywhere close to the hysterics around me.

Director Todd Phillips barely distinguished himself with his previous comedic efforts (2000's "Road Trip, 2003's "Old School", and 204's "Starsky & Hutch"). The same can be said for co-screenwriter Scott Moore, whose most recent effort is "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past". However, this one should put them all on the map-if based on the response I heard this night.

A sequel is already in the works. Can't wait.

"Sin Nombre" (****) (96 minutes)

Monday May 25, 2009

The best film I've seen this year, this great first effort by writer/director Cary Fukunaga is, literally, a mind blower!! Winner of the Directing and Cinematography Awards at this year's Sundance, this realistic masterpiece will stay with you, as I like to say, long after the lights come up.

The plot follows 2 separate story lines that later converge. The first follows Casper/"Willy" (new comer Edgar Flores), a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang based in Tapachula, Mexico as he is about to bring in a new recruit: 12-year-old "Smiley" (Kristyan Ferrer). The second follows Sayra (Paulina Gaitlan), a Honduras teenager, about to join forces with her father (whom she barely knows) and uncle in Mexico to immigrate on the tops of trains to New Jersey. Her father was deported and is trying to reunite his family in The States. How these stories collide is both equally thrilling and heartbreaking.

The story telling is top notch and the beauty of the 35mm print is breathtaking! The director was inspired by a 2003 story in which 80 illegal immigrants were locked inside a truck and abandoned resulting in 19 deaths. To affect the realism, he rode the trains for days.

The experience will provide a view of modern day Mexico that will have you rethinking your position on such issues as gang violence and immigration by putting you squarely in the middle of this culture in a way few films have ever done. These are people who will risk everything to better their lot in life-no matter the odds.

It continuously galls me that the endless stream of Hollywood dreck rakes in dollar after dollar while films such as this struggle to find an audience. "Sin Nombre" (which means "the nameless") has already opened in limited release. If you can't see it in a theater, put it at the top of your Netflix list.