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‘State of Play’ predictable but effective

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Posted: Friday, April 24, 2009 10:00 pm

This week's pick made for a nice change of pace from the barrage of comedies and family films we've been hit with lately (and provided a cushion to the otherwise devastating blow that Zac Efron delivered to my morale when he took the weekend box office with "17 Again" and provide a moral victory for eunuchs everywhere). Also, school's been sucking up my time lately, but Film Logs will soon return with a vengeance.

New in Theaters

"State of Play"

*** 1/2 (out of four)

2009, Kevin Macdonald, U.S., PG-13

First viewing.

"State of Play," the American adaptation of the critically hailed 2003 British miniseries, is perhaps my favorite kind of genre piece: a hard-nosed thriller with a broad focus, substantial character development and enough twists and intrigue to keep you riveted until the credits roll. As directed by Kevin Macdonald (the immensely talented filmmaker who first made noise with the documentaries "One Day in September" and "Touching the Void," and later completely blew my mind apart with the hardcore Idi Amin quasi-biopic "The Last King of Scotland"), the film contains all the elements one would expect from a civic-minded thriller, and the material is presented with maturity and great attention to detail.

Russell Crowe stars as Cal McAffrey, a veteran crime reporter with the fictitious Washington Globe who stumbles onto a possible conspiracy relating to his old friend and now junior congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). Collins has been digging up dirt on a major defense contractor, and when his top researcher/mistress turns up dead under mysterious circumstances, it's up to Cal to connect the dots and figure out the true nature of the conspiracy, including its apparent relation to two recent drug murders.

Despite the ads promising "a twist you'll never see coming," the solution to the central mystery should be obvious to anyone familiar with genre traditions. However, with a film like this, the journey is often far more interesting than the destination, and the film's chief pleasures lie in how the details of the plot unfold. The movie, though, still manages to surprise in two ways. First, the story is actually more concerned with journalistic issues than with political rabble-rousing, and it's the first film I've seen deal seriously with the financial and ethical demise of the newspaper industry. Second, I was shocked to find a film in which the usually stoic Affleck actually manages to outshine the much more talented and consistent Crowe, whose recent rash of good-but-unimaginative "doing it in his sleep" performances is causing me to question my previously unwavering and impassioned defense of his career choices.

DVD Pick

"Gone Baby Gone"

2007, Ben Affleck, U.S., R

Repeat viewing.

I've written about "Gone Baby Gone" extensively in the past, but I'll never pass up an opportunity to revisit such a fantastic film. I watched it again recently in an effort to prepare for my column on the decade's best movies, which will run at the beginning of next year, and I'll offer up a little preview by revealing that it currently holds the No. 2 spot and is unlikely to be displaced. It's the highest-ranking mainstream studio picture on the list, and is probably the best pure genre exercise since… I don't even know. "The Killer"? "Die Hard"?

In any case, as a modern noir, "Gone Baby Gone" makes brilliant use of every genre device at its disposal: an enigmatic plot, involving the disappearance of a little girl in an apparent drug-related kidnapping; jaded but sympathetic heroes, in two private detectives (played by Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) hired by the girl's family to augment the police investigation; thoughtful narration, delivered by Casey Affleck with a masculine sensitivity that is key to the success of his overall performanc, and a carefully imbued sense of place, courtesy of director Ben Affleck's natural-born ability as a filmmaker, as well as his familiarity with the Boston locale that is so central to the film.

All these elements gel together perfectly to create a thriller that delights not in half-baked plot twists, but in the slow revelation of buried secrets and concealed relationships that inspire more genuine reflection than any last-second plot reversal could ever hope to. There is no film that has caused more debate between me and my friends/family, and those lengthy discussions (sometimes bordering on fights) were due largely to the nature of the film's conclusion, which presents our heroes - and the viewer - with a choice that challenges our conceptions not of something as simple as right and wrong, but rather the far more complex and precarious concepts of morality and ethics. (It should be noted that, with one exception, all these debates have been drawn along gender lines. I'll let a sociologist figure that one out.) Doubling as a screenwriter, Affleck altered this ending in adapting Dennis Lehane's best-selling novel (the fourth in his incredible Kenzie/Gennaro mystery series), and damned if he didn't improve upon an already amazing story - not just in his handling of the ending, but also in a general sense.

Affleck moves the complicated plot along at a brisk pace, and there is not one second that the viewer isn't hanging on every word, every gesture, terrified to miss even the slightest detail. Even the smallest characters make their mark (with just a few minutes of screen time, rapper Slaine establishes the good-natured psychopath Bubba as a beloved supporting character worthy of his own movie), and considering that it clocks in at less than two hours, it's truly astounding how much great material Affleck was able to cram in.

Internet sources report no new projects from Affleck as a director, but I would like to renew my call for him to ease up on acting to focus on his work behind the camera. After some of the stunts he's pulled on screen, I think it's fair to say that he owes us.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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