'Gomorrah' & 'State of Play'

What's your pleasure? Tawdry Neopolitans or hard drinking Irish heroics?

By Steve Burgess 17 Apr 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about film for The Tyee every other Friday

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Crowe: Old-school.

The path from TV to movie is a rocky one. A cinematic release adapted from a popular TV series has the awkward task of pandering to the long-time fan base while still working as stand-alone entertainment for newcomers. Not to mention the time lag factor. By the time the big screen adaptation hits theatres, the series may have seen its moment pass (try watching the Sex and the City movie on cable -- only a year later, its consumer porn esthetic looks like the stuff of time capsules).

But there's a different TV-to-film model. Witness State of Play, a 2003 BBC mini-series now reinvented as a Hollywood movie. Here there's no need to worry too much about the reaction of rabid fans -- the Brits are a bunch of whiners anyway, aren't they?

Of course, director Kevin McDonald still has to come up with something worth the time and effort. The results are borderline. Suffice to say, if you love competence, you'll love State of Play.

The beltway, loosened

This version stars Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdam, Ben Affleck, Helen Mirren, and Robin Wright Penn, and reprises the plotline of the six-part BBC series that featured John Simms and Bill Nighy. Crowe plays Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey, old-school Irish and old-school journalism (think jigs, whiskey, and disdain for the Internet). Rachel McAdams is Della Frye -- she's the Internet, blogging for the Globe about the scandalous doings of the Washington elite. Ben Affleck, for example. Affleck plays Congressman Stephen Collins, a Young Turk hot on the trail of malfeasance. His target is Point Corp, a Blackwater-like private contractor whose mercenaries are in the process of becoming the de facto U.S. military.

Congressman Collins' pursuit of these shadowy corporate villains is derailed by his own Chandra Levy scandal -- a beautiful intern, romantically linked to the congressman, dies under mysterious circumstances. Suddenly the political crusader's credibility is shot to hell, as if by the state-of-the-art weaponry of a certain military contractor. Even CNN's Lou Dobbs weighs in on the scandal (you can tell it's fiction because Dobbs never once mentions illegal immigrants).

Luckily for Congressman Collins, his former roommate is one Cal McAffrey, ace hard-drinking Irishman. The congressman's wife Anne (Wright Penn) knows McAffrey too -- really, really well. Seems they've been inside each other's beltway. It's a small world, Washington.

State of Play has its pleasures. The movie doesn't pander with the pointless bang-bang and chase-chase usually included to beef up the trailer (there is, however, a fair amount of purposeful striding). It's also a nice change to see a central character who's not any kind of action hero, except perhaps the elbow-bending kind.


Unfortunately, State of Play offers a twist. I won't include a spoiler -- the film does that to itself anyway. Twists are all well and good, an expected part of the thriller genre. But what if your twist basically works to invalidate whatever message the rest of your film may have offered? How about a remake of All the President's Men where Nixon was framed?

State of Play is sturdy enough. The question is whether it's a worthy competitor for your tightly-squeezed recreational buck. The answer: maybe if the Canucks are getting blown out early.

Meanwhile, I heartily recommend an alternative: Gomorrah, still playing at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas in Vancouver. It's no popcorn movie, and certainly doesn't fill the same entertainment needs that can be satisfied by a movie like State of Play. But Matteo Garrone's unsentimental look at the tawdry world of Neapolitan organized crime will definitely rank as one of the movies of the year. Catch it while you can.

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