“State of Play" (2009)
First up: Kevin Macdonald's "State of Play" isn't a patch on the six-part BBC TV series that inspired it. It isn't as funny, for one, while the richness and depth of the supporting cast (which originally included familiar faces like Bill Nighy, James McAvoy, Kelly Macdonald, Philip Glenister and Marc Warren) isn't matched, even with fine showings from the likes of Helen Mirren, Rachel McAdams and a particularly good cast-against-type Jason Bateman. But that doesn't mean that the film doesn't have its charms. For one, the screenplay (by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray, with an uncredited polish by Peter Morgan) is actually kind of a remarkable adaptation, condensing most of the dense plotting admirably, while trimming digressions, and sensibly dumping the romance between journalist Cal (Russell Crowe) and politician Stephen Collins' wife (Robin Wright Penn). Macdonald brings a '70s-inflected zip to proceedings, and it's expertly paced. But the film's most notable for two things: first of all, it's the first journalism-based movie to deal with the coming death of the printed paper, pitting Crowe's veteran muckraker against Rachel McAdams' new-school blogger, and it gives the picture a little extra fizz. But the film's true pleasure comes in Crowe's performance -- on paper it's a rerun of the schlubby investigator he played in "American Gangster," but Crowe looks like he's having a ball, and his languid, relaxed charm reminds you that, before the temper tantrums, he promised to be a once-in-a-generation movie star. [B]
“The Paper" (1994)
Ron Howard's comedy-drama, his second flop in a row after the Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman disaster "Far & Away" (but admittedly far superior to that film), has plenty going for it. Its depiction of a faintly sleazy New York tabloid (basically The Post) has, in places, a ring of authenticity to it (David Koepp co-wrote the script with brother Stephen, a writer at Times), and for a film over a decade and a half old, it's strangely prescient about the situations newspapers now find themselves in. There's also a terrific central performance from Michael Keaton; one that displays his tremendous charm and comic timing (which we were reminded of this year in his something of a comeback after "Toy Story 3" and "The Other Guys"). Randy Quaid's performance as a paranoid, gun-toting columnist also gave us a cheap laugh on re-watching it. But otherwise, it's kind of a washout, and the principle problem is Howard; as usual, he gives a slick, sentimental Hollywood sheen to the picture that rids it of anything close to truthfulness. There's also an odd dichotomy between the crusading semi-liberal sub-plot about a pair of black teenagers wrongly accused of murder (the filmmakers don't even have the dramatic sense to hint at ambiguity, demonstrating their innocence from the off), and the oddly conservative worldview of the rest of the film -- the depiction of the women in the film is, frankly, disgraceful. One for die-hard Keaton fans and newsroom picture obsessives only, to be honest. [C]
To regular readers it will not be news that we almost unconditionally love David Fincher (the ‘almost’ being down to ‘Benjamin Button’ -- a tedious misstep if ever there was one), and that we’ll take any opportunity to bang on about his underrated (in his oeuvre anyway) 2007 serial killer film. Granted, it’s not as showy or as sensationalist as 1995’s “Se7en” and lacks the punchy, pulpy, pop-culture feel of “Fight Club,” but as an absorbing and meticulous procedural, speckled with strong performances and elevated by pretty sublime camerawork (it’s his one collaboration with master cinematographer Harris Savides), “Zodiac” proves that the director can do depth and thoughtfulness in addition to his more obvious talents. But perhaps these are qualities that people didn’t want or expect of a serial killer movie, which is why its inclusion here makes sense. It may be based on a famous true unsolved case, but “Zodiac” isn’t about murder or the murderer - it’s about obsession and the long lonely hours that men in offices and at desks put in trying to catch him - these were the killer’s other, unheralded victims. The San Francisco Chronicle’s newsroom may not be the sole, or even the primary setting of the film, but as a place of occasional revelation but more often of unending slog and unrewarded sacrifice (a lot like Playlist Towers), it is a perfect location for the film’s downbeat, ambiguous yet strangely nourishing themes. [A-]
Honorable Mentions: We had to disqualify a number of films to keep the list down -- as we said, journalists have been protagonists in countless films, and we'd be here all day otherwise. Anything involving foreign correspondents wasn't quite what we were after, involving journalists on the ground rather than behind a desk, so the likes of "The Year of Living Dangerously," "Salvador" and, well, "Foreign Correspondent," all very strong works, were left out in the cold. Similarly, "Sweet Smell of Success" is an almost impossibly great film, but not quite what we were after, and the likes of "Fletch" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," while involving reporter protagonists, really aren't about journalists. Even "Citizen Kane," despite having a newspaper proprietor for an anti-hero, doesn't really get into the nuts and bolts of putting out a paper. The Nick Nolte/Julia Roberts screwball comedy "I Love Trouble," meanwhile, was disqualified for being rubbish.
There were a few films that did qualify not on the list that are worth a mention. "Absence of Malice" is one of Sydney Pollack's best films, a complex look at the consequences of the news, with a tremendously ambiguous performance from Paul Newman, and Richard Brooks' "Deadline - U.S.A." is a decent noirish thriller, if far from Humphrey Bogart's best work. "The Front Page," the basis for "His Girl Friday," has seen a number of adaptations, from the fairly enjoyable 1931 version (not a patch on Hawks' film), to the disappointing 1974 Billy Wilder version, and the woefully miscast TV redo "Switching Channels" with Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner. And there's a wealth of films, including many from Film Forum's special season earlier in the year, like "Five Star Final," "The Big Clock" and Fritz Lang's "While The City Sleeps," which we simply weren't able to track down in time. As usual, send a telegram to the metro editor with your own suggestions. - Oliver Lyttelton, Kevin Jagernauth, Kimber Myers, Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez