MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: State of Play, Earth, Sin Nombre, Skin Game, M*A*S*H* and more…

State of Play (Three Stars)
U. S.; Kevin Macdonald, 2009 (Universal)

There’s stuff wrong with State of Play, director Kevin Macdonald’s would-be brainy newspaper thriller, adapted from the celebrated Paul Abbott BBC mini-series on journalism and politics. But despite speaking as an old newspaperman, I couldn’t bring myself to get much bothered by them.

(What a funny thing to say about yourself, he thinks, bent over the laptop in his living room and yearning a little for the days when he rattled stories off in not-too-noisy newspaper offices, which never quite reminded him enough of the reporters’ room in the ‘20s Chicago Criminal Courts Building in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur‘s The Front Page — the play that made him fall in love, at 12, with newspapers and news people. It was a huge inviolable crush confirmed several months later, also at 12, by his first viewing of a snazzy newspaper movie called Citizen Kane.)

So, what about State of Play? This is a thriller on journalism and politics with (for me) a phony, unsatisfying ending — surprising considering its illustrious source — one that sent me out of the theater with a sour aftertaste. But, as a gritty-scrappy, lovingly detailed mash note to our dying profession and vanishing world –a milieu partly killed by the very internet website universe around us now — and as a showcase for some brilliant and/or attractive actors (including Russell Crowe, Helen Mirren, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Jeff Daniels and Jason Bateman, with the latter coming close to stealing the whole movie from that formidable lineup) — it clicks.

Crowe plays Cal McAffrey, a shaggy, irreverent star reporter of the old school, or what we Front Page lovers like to think was the old school: a wise-ass, sloppy-dressed, booze-quaffing consummate pro, employed by the Washington Post, ah make that Washington Globe. Affleck is Stephen Collins, a fashion plate U. S. Congressman who looks like a movie star and whose intern has just been killed — an intern with whom he was shaving an affair (as in the real-life Gary Condit-Chandra Levy case), ignoring the dangers to his promising career and lovely wife (Robin Wright Penn).

Rachel McAdams — who makes my heart sing a little whenever I spot her in a cast list — is Della Frye, a smarty-pants star blogger, who gets joined at the hip to Cal as an investigative team (a bit, at first, like the bickering Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll handcuffed together in The 39 Steps. Jeff Daniels is a conservative, scandal-conscious snake of a U. S. Senator, monitoring the mess. And Helen Mirren is the hardnosed editor Cameron, played by Bill Nighy in the TV show — publishers breathing down her neck — who wants to get the news out, and more important, wants to sell it to enough people to save the Globe.

The movie, directed by Macdonald, who made the Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September, shot the thrilling mountain climbing recreation/doc Touching the Void and handled Forrest Whitaker’s Oscar-glomming Idi Amin-star turn in The Last King of Scotland, is very well directed but not especially well-written, despite a seemingly ace screenplay screenwriting team that includes Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray — and despite a source teleplay, written by Abbott, that’s considered a knockout. (I kept thinking “Why didn’t that they just give Abbott a tour of the big American newspapers, and let him write it? Or, better yet, keep it in London?” But then, somebody was probably thinking of that other Brit miniseries Traffik aka Traffic. And since I haven’t seen Abbott’s show yet, I can’t back up my hunch.)

Perhaps the biggest problem with the movie lies in something I can’t discuss too much without giving things away, but that lies at the heart of the matter: the morally troublesome friendship between Cal and Collins. In England, they relish political sex scandals. (Gotcha!) In America, where one of our most beloved presidents, Jack Kennedy, was something of a chaser, political sex doesn’t play the same way, though a scandal is just as ruinous. The movie State of Play has a tendency toward preachments, and it also seems bent (at least in this American edition) on avoiding certain lefty clichés while stumbling into others. Clichés can work well in thrillers, especially if they’re twisted in just the right way. (“I adore clichés,” Roman Polanski once said. “All the great artists use them.”) Here though, they aren’t twisted enough.

I liked it anyway, despite my sense that a movie about a paper held up for by an editor for hours for a story the reporter not only hasn’t written, but hasn’t even finished investigating, deserves scads of demerits. So does a movie that gives a blogger in her 20s that big an office, while the star reporter toils away at a paper-strewn mess of a desk that resembles some of my old haunts. (Like Cal’s, I operated on the paper tower filing system.)

The movie also teases us, but doesn’t offer much romance. Cal has had an affair with Anne, but that was in the past, and he pretty much keeps hands off Della — something I found unbelievable, given the actors. (Sexual-political correctness be damned. Cal should probably have made a big sloppy play for her, she should have swatted him, and they should have decided to forget about it. It would have violated office harassment codes, but it would have been a great scene, and it would have given them the opportunity for a great exchange of glances at the end. (Ah, what might have been!)

Crowe and McAdams are such good, sexy actors, it seems a waste to make them play too much by the rules. In any case, Crowe does a good job of giving us some of the moral and psychological ambiguities of a crack reporter messy in his private habits, but punctilious in his profession. His very diet — cheese and chili burgers (and it looks like Crowe had a few himself as research), is expressive, as are his greasy mane and little boy eyes. Della and Cameron are shallowly written, but McAdams and Mirren fill them out. Ben Affleck is slick and opaque, which works well enough; I kept wondering though what the movie would have been like with a shaggier than usual Matt Damon as Cal. The guy who gives much more than the script probably gave him, maybe through improvs, is Bateman, as Dominic Foy, a fantastically sleazy P. R. hustler.

Anyway, as a thriller, State of Play may be overheated and somewhat unsatisfying, especially compared to its illustrious source. But how can you knock a movie that has a newspaper office set like this one has? Those cubicles! That glass observatory office for Cameron! Production designer Mark Friedberg deserves an Alexander Trauner citation for this. (Trauner was the man who designed Jack Lemmon‘s Manhattan workplace for Billy Wilder‘s The Apartment and Paris for Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert’s Children of Paradise.) And, despite the script, these actors know how to make the best of a great office or a dramatic opportunity.

The closing coda is great too. We get to see the Washington Post presses roll out a paper, and it’s almost as exciting as that tower of newsprint in the News on the March newsreel for Kane. And nostalgic. As newspapers struggle and fall all around us, we’re beginning to realize what an enormous loss we may suffer at their passing. So, in watching this flawed but sometimes exhilarating thriller, a lot of us can bid a fond, sad farewell to the world of journalism Friedberg’s office apotheosizes. I know I did. Farewell, Charles Foster Kane. Goodbye, Woodward and Bernstein. Adios, Ben Hecht. Toodle-oo Roy Bensinger. Maybe we’ll all meet again in a better world than this.


Disney Nature Earth (Four Stars)
U.S. Alistair Fothergill/Mark Linfield, 2009 (Disney)

This is the shortened theatrical version of Planet Earth, the extraordinary BBC TV series from writer-narrator David Attenborough and producer Fothergill – with a new narration read by James Earl Jones, for American audiences. (Patrick Stewart narrated the British release.) The original is the one to own, of course; it‘s one of the greatest, most beautifully photographed documentaries ever made. But, as shortened by the original’s producer-director, Fothergill, this rapid-read “Reader’s Digest” edition of Planet Earth is a still-stunning substitute if you’re time-challenged.

Like its source, Disney’s concise Earth is a truly breath-taking portrait of the surface of our Earth and the species that live in its increasingly endangered wilderness terrains and ocean expanses. Their film takes us from lofty, icy mountain peaks to the weird monsters on the dark and mysterious ocean floors, from vast parched deserts, to dense and fertile tropical rain forests, examining the animal and marine inhabitants with brilliant intensity and imagery of overpowering beauty. (A note for the squeamish: Be forewarned. This is nature as it really is. There’s a lot of sex and violence.)

The cinematography of Planet Earth, by 40 camera teams in over 200 locations. is absolutely staggering, beyond praise. The images make the case for conservation and sensible planet-care as forcefully and gracefully as it can possibly be made. And though I miss Attenborough as narrator, Jones, reading a script pitched at a more “American family” sort of audience, does it sonorously and well.

I loved this version, as I did the first, though I realize this choice may seem eccentric or, God help us, middlebrow. Aren’t these two “just” nature documentaries: pretty in a Discovery Channel way, but lacking artistic or social heft? All I can say is: Watch them on the best TV set you can. See if you aren’t bowled over too.

Sin Nombre (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Cary Fukunaga, 2009 (Universal)

Like Gregory Nava’s El Norte, but on a larger and ultimately more tragic scale, Cary Fukunaga’s widely praised indie is an epic of illegal immigration, following its America-bound Mexican protagonists on a perilous trek to the border. The story, with its dollops of romance, villainy, pursuit and vendetta, is more melodramatic than El Norte and most similar films, but just as gripping. The acting is intense, the filmmaking powerful. A good antidote to more rabble-rousing arguments on the subject, and a very good movie as well.


Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Two discs) (Four Stars)
Belgium/France; Chantal Akerman, 1975 (Criterion)

A Belgian woman, Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig), widow and mother, goes about her daily chores, homemaking, cooking, keeping the rooms tidy and neat. We watch Jeanne mostly in near-real time, see her routine in exhaustive detail. But something dangerous lies below the surface, giving the lie to the idea of a woman happy in her work.
Chantal Akerman’s best, most perfectly fashioned and executed film, though casual viewers should be warned that this is minimalist filmmaking at its most excruciating. One of my old bosses, a hopeless idiot, once nearly fired me for praising it. He should have been one of Jeanne‘s clients. The last one. With Jan Decorte, Henri Storck, ex-“Cahier du Cinema” critic Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Yves Bical. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Akerman’s first film, Saute ma Ville (1968); documentary; interviews with Akerman, Seyrig, “Dielman” cinematographer Babette Mangolte, and Akerman’s mother, Natalia; booklet with essay by Ivone Margulies.

Skin Game (Three-and-a-Half Stars)
U.S.; Paul Bogart, Gordon Douglas (unc.), 1971 (Warner Archive)

Star James Garner rekindled that old Maverick magic, in a clutch of medium-budget comedy westerns released in the late ’60s and ’70s: notably Burt Kennedy’s Support Your Local Sheriff! and Support Your Local Gunfighter, and this one. Playing easy-going, smooth-talking Old West sharpies, whose keen wits and glib patter outfoxed many a rich frontier dullard, or mean heavy, Garner was also the ideal centerpiece for these picaresque or colorful Wild West romps, and Skin Game — costarring Garner and a very young (and non-bald) Lou Gossett as buddies and conmen running a phony runaway slave grift together before the Civil War — gives him a terrific showcase.

Gossett is good too and so are the supporting troupe, including Susan Clark (the tough leading lady of Don Siegel‘s Madigan and Coogan‘s Bluff), Brenda Sykes, Ed Asner (as a vicious slave-catcher) and Andrew Duggan. Screenwriter Pierre Marton is a pseudonym for the very witty Peter Stone, of Charade and Father Goose.



TCM Greatest Classics Film Collection: Murder Mysteries (Four Stars)
U.S.; Various Directors, 1941-1954 (TCM/Warners)

Four classic mysteries — three of which are classic films noirs as well — that make superb use of three classic noir novels (by those three legendary hard-boiled writers Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain) and of the hit play by Frederick Knott. The noirs, directed by John Huston, Howard Hawks and Tay Garnett (all at their best, which in Garnett’s case, means less), summon up the ’40s as surely as still of Bogey, Bacall, a gun and two smoking cigarettes; Dial M for Murder shows how brilliantly Alfred Hitchcock could enliven a stage play, retaining all its claustrophobic intensity without really opening it up. An excellent set.

Includes: The Maltese Falcon (U.S.; John Huston, 1941) Four Stars. Adapted, with rare perfection, from Hammett’s great private eye novel, starring Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Elisha Cook, Jr., Ward Bond and Barton MacLane. The Big Sleep (U.S.; Howard Hawks, 1946) Four Stars. One of two versions of Hawks’ tough and twisty adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s great private eye novel. With Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Malone (our favorite bookseller), Elisha Cook, Jr. and Bob Steele.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (U.S.; Tay Garnett, 1946) Three-and-a-Half Stars. The darkest of film noir romances, adapted from Albert Camus favorite James M. Cain’s classic crime tale, with John Garfield and Lana Turner as the steamy killer/lovers, supported by Cecil Kellaway, Hume Cronyn, Audrey Totter and Leon Ames. Dial M for Murder (U.S.; Alfred Hitchcock, 1954) Three-and-a-Half Stars. Adapted from Frederick Knott’s play about tennis, trials murder gone wrong, with Grace Kelly, Ray Milland, Robert Cummings, John Williams and Anthony Dawson. A fine movie (Truffaut loved it), but a better (and noirer) Hitchcock for this set would have been Strangers on a Train, which, of course, is no more a “mystery” than Postman Always Rings Twice.



M*A*S*H (Four Stars)
U.S.; Robert Altman, 1970 (Fox)

Robert Altman‘s biggest commercial hit came when he took Ring Lardner, Jr.‘s script of Richard Hooker’s novel about a screw-loose Korean War M.A.S.H. unit — the same kind of ‘50s Army medical team depicted more straightforwardly in the 1953 Richard Brooks-Humphrey Bogart war movie Battle Circus — and exploded it from inside, letting his imagination and cast run wild in this first of his great ensemble films.

Of course, no one really thought the movie was “about” the Korean War, despite its setting. M*A*S*H was always taken, rightly, as a lightly veiled depiction of Vietnam, a conflict that, except for John Wayne’s flabbily gung-ho The Green Berets, was almost ignored cinematically while it was being waged. Altman and his great cast — which included Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Robert Duvall and Sally Kellerman as the original Hawkeye, Trapper John, Frank Burns and Hot Lips — presented a view of war that was both crazily antic and bloodily convincing, a double vision that continued in the long run, wildly popular Larry Gelbart-Alan Alda TV series the movie spawned. One of the quintessential ’70s movies, M*A*S*H it was also a Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner and one of the few movies you could imagine named “Best of the Year” by both Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris.



Sugar (Three Stars)
U. S.; Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, 2009 (Sony)

A hotshot pitcher from the Dominican Republic, named Miguel “Sugar” Santos (played by real-life ballplayer/actor Algenis Perez Soto), is signed by a major league club, flies off to Arizona training camp and is assigned to a minor league team in Bridgewater, Iowa — where he ‘s boarded by a devout baseball-loving farming family, the Higginses, with a pretty daughter, Anne (Ellary Porterfield). He starts the season like a flame-throwing strikeout king wonder, but then an injury sidelines him and language and cultural problems start messing with his head.

You may think you know where this is going, but you don’t. There’s no pretty waitress who believes in Sugar, no grizzled old vet to impart words of wisdom and no big redemptive game. This is instead one of the better baseball movies I’ve seen since Bull Durham, and its because it’s one of the more honest and realistic depictions of the game and its players — and its real dramas and human issues.

Sugar is about how hard it can be to adjust to a new culture, even if you’ve got a 100 mph fastball to peddle. It’s about the emptiness and condescension of some rote piety, and about the ways that guys from poor families in a new world can get caught in the machine. It’s about the 90 percent who can get left behind or caught in a journeyman bind, for every success story that dazzles us. (Like the real life World Series exploits of Jose Rijo, one of the ballplayer/actors here).

Director-writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who dealt just as honestly with drug addiction in Half Nelson, won’t let phoniness or sentimentality derail their story, no matter how much they sense the audience may want it. (And we do.) This one may feel like a too-realistic downer at first, but Boden and Fleck take us on the right game plan. They know what it feels like to win and lose: what it takes to make a loser, and a winner. And the thin line that separates the two.

Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (Four Stars)
U.S.; Robbie Cavolina, Ian McCrudden (Red Distribution)

Anita O’Day was a white girl jazz singer whom almost all the experts rank with the greats: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughn. She was also a plucky, often unlucky adventuress who led a real jazz life — a biography, improvised and dangerous, that included hard times and years as a heroin addict, thanks to her “bad influence” junkie drummer-consort.

This superb documentary, successful on every level, brings us both the music and the woman, the song and the singer, from her early big band days with Gene Krupa (“Drum Boogie”) and Stan Kenton (“And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine”), to her still active octogenarian years — with plenty of classic O’Day performances and glowing testimonials from a gallery of experts.

There’s an unforgettable high point: Anita at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival (in the performance immortalized on Bert Stern‘s Jazz on a Summer‘s Day), resplendent and ultra-cool in her summery straw hat and Vogue charmer outfit, delivering her legendary knockout, playfully dissonant, completely untraditional rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown.” You listen. You watch. All you can say is “Wow!”

Extras: Booklet, bonus O’Day performances.



Gaumont Treasures 1897-1913
France; Alice Guy/Louis Feuillade/Leonce Perret, 1897-1913 (Kino)


– Michael Wilmington
September 1, 2009

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon