State of Play

Adapted from the 2003 BBC miniseries of the same name, director Kevin McDonald’s complex contemporary thriller State of Play opens with a series of seemingly unconnected incidents. In one, a man flees for his life before being shot dead in a Washington back alley. The next morning, a beautiful young political intern commits suicide by jumping under a train.

Seemingly unconnected, that is, until grizzled veteran journalist Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) starts sniffing around. He’s a close friend of the dead girl’s boss, rising U.S. Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), who soon admits they were having an affair. Collins is deeply involved in a congressional investigation into a Haliburton-like private military corporation, so cannot afford the scandal. But there is much more to the story, as McAffrey and his newspaper’s bright on-line blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) come to realise.

Essentially, the story boils down to an analysis of two conjoined systems, government and journalism, and the individuals that get chewed up in their gears when an outside party tosses in a spanner. Director Kevin McDonald (The Last King of Scotland) has reams of story to get through but he frames his tangled conspiracy against a backdrop of topical headlines: the challenges faced by print news, the rise of private security firms, the collusion between arms companies and the military. His well-weaved references and allusions add consequence to the thriller, even if some of them flash past too quickly for comprehension.

State of Play races through the story in a series of fleeting moments, quick scenes that hint at further developments whiz by, sometimes hidden in exciting action scenes, sometimes buried among the everyday chores of a working newsroom. You have to keep at least one eye open to even begin to follow a story in which everything might be significant, a consequence of trying to cram the original series’ six-hour running time into a cinematic timeframe and I am not certain the rewards justify the exertion.

The screenplay, from Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, and Billy Ray, gives us so much material to sift through, and at such pace, that it is tempting to watch the film with an editor’s red pencil. In comparison, there isn’t a word out of place in Alan Pakula’s All The President’s Men, which had the added challenge of being condensed from real events.

Crowe brings an authentic dishevelment to his role, his pasty body wrecked by hours sat at a desk, eyes reddened from peering at a screen; he looks exhausted in the opening frames, flipping crisps into his mouth as he drives to a crime scene. The actor maintains the sense of fatigue all the way through, but he is still enormously vital, quick-witted, strong and determined.

Rachel McAdams is well able for Crowe as the tough-cookie on-line reporter, matching him beat for beat through tricky dialogue and carrying her role’s heavy metaphorical weight lightly. In the secondary cast, Jason Bateman excels as a cynical PR guru who tries to talk himself out of a desperate situation while Helen Mirren does her clipped and acid turn as the British editor trying to keep the paper from going under. Robin Wright Penn, as Collins’ humiliated wife, channels her anger and desire for revenge into a series of tiny gestures, all designed to hold herself together.

A taut, well-acted thriller that also acts as a love-letter to print journalism, State of Play overcomes some unsubtle plot gyrations and a creeping sense of fragmentation with the brute intelligence of the dialogue and careful direction.

In The Loop

Writer and director Armando Iannucci expands on the world of his satirical political sit-com The Thick of It for In The Loop, a razor sharp, deeply cynical farce about the symbiotic relationship between Britain and the US in the run up to the second war in Iraq.

The film opens as the Prime Minister’s foul-mouthed Director of Communications Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) lambastes the new Minister of International Development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) for saying in an interview that “war is unforeseeable”. Tucker is a ferocious government attack-dog, more-or-less based on Prime Minister Tony Blair’s notoriously ruthless press secretary, Alastair Campbell, who is reviled and revered in Whitehall for his loathsome tongue. Nobody messes with him twice, except the ambitious Foster, who blithely repeats his opinionated error at a meeting with US officials. There he finds new allies in the scatterbrained State Department maven Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) and US General Miller (James Gandolfini), busy fighting their own pro-war faction, led by gimlet-eyed neo-con Linton Barwick (David Rasche).

Looking for a justification for war, Barwick seizes on another stupid statement Foster makes during a kerbside interview where he urges Britain to “climb the mountain of conflict.” Tucker is incensed at Foster, not so much for speaking out of turn, but for having an opinion in the first place, so insists that he accompany him to Washington for a series of high-level meetings at the UN that will determine whether or not the warring factions will be given the green light for war. As a palate-cleansing sorbet, Iannucci offers us a minor domestic crisis as Foster battles an angry constituent (Steve Coogan) in his Northampton district over the status of a crumbling garden wall.

The inspired script, co-written by Iannucci and the writing team of Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell (from the similarly acid Peep Show) balances rich, meaty satire with a masterclass in swearing. Apparently, Iannucci employs a specialist writer, known only as The Swear Doctor, whose only function is to go through the script, adding new and eye-wateringly vivid obscenities from the blackest depths of his imagination. Tucker takes the lion's share of these tirades, spewing language so salty at times it seems to crystallize mid-air.

These frequent and sustained outbursts of base language are shocking, malignant and extraordinarily funny. In The Loop is one of the few times this year when I have laughed out loud at a movie, but the film is far more than a litany of foul expressions; Iannucci and his cast revel in the rich, arcane language of politics and the meaningful ambiguity of governmental double-speak, tying each other up in Gordian knots of nonsense.

Iannucci hasn’t done anything with the larger, more expansive canvas of cinema to distinguish the film from television, maintaining the same hand-held, fly-on-the-wall aesthetic and blabbermouth dialogue. The same small-screen methods apply to the episodic story, which lands us in right the middle of these unpleasant characters without much in the way of explanation then asks us to keep up with a steadily trotting narrative, occasionally diverting the flow with one of a series of bubbling sub-plots that marry the passion of politics to the thrill of clandestine sex.

In the post-Bush era, some of his jibes land with less force than they might have done a year ago but in the end, the films lack of timeliness doesn’t detract from the joy in how cleverly Iannucci re-imagines the “dodgy dossier” scandal as a black farce, played out by idiots in a world of savage absurdity.

Let The Right One In

A lonely twelve year old finds his soulmate in a mysterious vampire girl in the beautiful and enigmatic horror fantasy Let The Right One In, one of the films of the year.

Adapted by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own bestselling novel, the story opens in Stockholm in 1982 where the ghostly pale Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) lives with his divorced mother in a modernist apartment block. A withdrawn and uncertain child, Oskar is being bullied at school and spends much of his time alone, hanging around the complex’s courtyard, playing with his hunting knife and dreaming of revenge. One night, he notices a new family moving in next door; a young girl around his own age and an older man, probably her father. The next evening, they meet at the playground and she introduces herself as Eli (Lina Leandersson). She is a misfit too, dressed in strange clothes, with filthy hands and casting a strange smell.

Eli lives with Hakan (Per Ragnar), an odd, older man whom the locals assume is her father but he is in fact her familiar, a serial killer she sends out at night to kill on her behalf. As the two become friends, Eli encourages Oskar to stand up to the boys that are bullying him, urging him to strike back or be forever cowed. This he does, with brutal efficiency, his thirst for revenge as strong in its way as her desire for blood. Slowly, the two form a bond, without saying much, sitting together in the courtyard. When she arrives unannounced one night in his bedroom, Oskar asks her to be his girlfriend. “But I am not a girl”, she answers. Later, he finds the courage to ask Eli if she is a vampire. He already knows the answer, and doesn’t care. He has a friend.

Eli being either too small or too vulnerable to feed herself, sends Hakan out to find her meals. This is his job, something he prepares for meticulously, but things sometimes go wrong. Hakan stalks the streets, gassing his victims and draining their blood into a plastic barrel before dragging it home. This is not the sexualised, intimate bite of Dracula or Nosferatu, it is something closer to alcoholism, a desperate desire to drink without sustenance or satisfaction. But Hakan is getting old and careless. Eli, it seems, has more than friendship on her mind; she needs a minder, someone who will do what is required to allow her to live. Is Oskar capable of murder, or is his violence a passing phase? Does Eli really love him, or is their relationship just an elaborate seduction?

Alfredson elegantly places this darkly gothic story against the brutal backdrop of high-rise concrete buildings, snow-covered walkways and empty streets. His carefully framed, calmly static camera seeks out detail everywhere it settles; the tangled colours of a Rubick’s cube, the torn pages of Oskar’s murder scrapbook, the dark splash of blood on snow. His film is beautifully photographed and tautly edited, benefiting from sparse, carefully placed special effects and an indelible atmosphere of threat and promise. His delicate use of sound adds a further dimension to the story, particularly when Oskar and Eli use Morse code to communicate through the walls of their adjoining apartments.

The two young actors perfectly embody their characters; their pale faces, photographed close-up, drawing out deep reserves of pain and isolation with little more than glances and sighs. They give flawless performances as the supposed innocents crafting an escape from lives that have become intolerable and dangerous.

Let The Right One In is a remarkable film, brilliantly conceived and hypnotically told. It makes the recent Twilight look the antics of the number-crunching Count on Sesame Street.

The Boat That Rocked

Six years on from the gruesome Love Actually, writer and director Richard Curtis returns with a limp comedy, set on board a 1960s pirate radio ship, that springs a leak soon after the opening credits and takes over two hours to sink. Nominally inspired by the real-life history of Radio Caroline, The Boat That Rocked is actually set in an alternate dimension, call it Curtis World; a jaunty, predominantly white and middle class place where silly people get up to all sorts of harmless fun and games.

The familiarity with which the film establishes the time and place is the first hint of trouble. A flashy arrangement of swinging stereotypes, fashioned after Richard Lester’s Help!, serves as shorthand for the burgeoning Age of Aquarius. Representing, in no particular order, youth, innocence, the audience and the absent Hugh Grant, fresh-faced, floppy haired teenager Carl (Tom Sturridge) is sent to be looked after by his louche godfather Quentin (Bill Nighy) when he gets into trouble at school. All Savile Row suits and charming insouciance, Quentin is skipper and owner of Radio Rock, a ship anchored in international waters off the British coast that broadcasts a steady stream of pop music to culture starved teenyboppers, a market ignored by the conservative mainstream.

The ship serves as studio and sleeping quarters for the all-male staff of DJs, led by alpha-male US import The Count (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), whose only stated desire is to be the first man to say 'fuck' on the radio. The rest of the ensemble is made up of Curtis’ standard British romantic-comedy archetypes; the eccentric one, Bob (Ralph Brown), the thick one, Kevin (Tom Brooke), the sole female one (Katherine Parkinson) and, later, the outrageous one, Gavin (Rhys Ifans). Much of the early action is devoted to Carl losing his virginity to any one of the dozens of dollybirds that descend, when required, on the ship like a Biba-clad horde. This momentous event appears imminent when he falls for worldly groupie Eleanora (Tallulah Riley) but, maddened by the pull of fame, she ends up with the fat one, Dave (Nick Frost). Curtis likes this bed-hopping joke so much that he repeats it twenty minutes later, when the sad one, melancholy breakfast presenter Simon (Chris O'Dowd), is gazumped by a rival on his wedding night. Yes, wedding. There is always a wedding in Curtis World.

The free-loving hippy DJs require an establishment against which to rebel so Kenneth Branagh arrives as the uptight square, Sir Alistair Dormandy, squirreling around Whitehall determined to find a loophole that will shut the pirates down. To this end Curtis gives him a sidekick named Twatt (Jack Davenport) and a comical moustache and then, as with all the other subplots, seems content to leave it at that.

It’s lame stuff indeed. The period sixties setting distinguishes the film from the rest of Curtis’ gelatinous repertoire, a feature the director hammers home in a series of extended Austin Powers montages that nestle uncomfortably between the casually sexist romps, nauseatingly contrived dance sequences and tired visual slapstick. Every so often Curtis cuts back to the mainland for a series of reaction shots; short sequences of everyday listeners responding to what is coming through the wireless exactly as they would if there was a movie camera pointed at them. Here too there is dancing but little evident joy.

Without anything of interest in the story to cling to, the extended running time turns what might have been a bright nostalgia trip into a deadening trudge. Unable to chart a steady course through his various storylines, Curtis is content to skip distractedly from skit to sketch but even with a well-chosen soundtrack of classic songs, he cannot sustain a mood and the film flags. His characters remain thin caricatures and look uniformly adrift in between the funny bits. Eventually, the film runs out of those; more than once an actor is asked to face the camera and lip-sync along to a song on the soundtrack, like karaoke. It is a striking waste of a talented cast, many of them mainstays of the director’s informal repertory company.

The Boat That Rocked might not be the worst Richard Curtis film ever, but it is the worst yet.

Lesbian Vampire Killers

Little and large comedy duo James Corden and Matthew Horne made their names with sit-com Gavin & Stacey but nothing of that series’ warmth and good humour transfers in their big-screen debut, the shrill and puerile Lesbian Vampire Killers. Sapphic-themed bloodsucker movies are a genre to themselves, from 1936s Dracula’s Daughter to Jess Franco’s enduring psychedelic cult classic Vampyros Lesbos, but director Phil Claydon is only interested in spoofing the already self-aware 1970s Hammer horror The Vampire Lovers, and evidently not all that interested even in that.

Corden and Horne play Fletch and Jimmy, a pair of listless Londoners who escape their tedious troubles by taking a holiday in a remote village in Norfolk. Upon arrival, they are invited to stay in an even-more-isolated cottage, free of charge, by a local pub landlord. But the kindly tavern owner has a nefarious ulterior motive: he is sending the boys as a sacrifice to the vampire queen who has enslaved the young women of the region in a lesbian death cult. To fill out the quotient of female flesh required of the Nuts and Zoo-reading audience, the boys meet up with a gaggle of sexy foreign exchange students, who run around in their knickers until the story demands they transform into lesbians. Somewhere in the middle of all this, Paul McGann pops up as a vicar who believes Horne is the descendant of a long-dead vampire slayer.

For a movie that boils down to ninety minutes of gags about being fat, LVK is surprisingly lean when it comes to laughs. Corden, the big-boned one, delights in his own corpulence, wobbling his belly and slobbering his jowls when given the chance, but his antics never once raise a genuine laugh. Corden takes the vast majority of the starchy dialogue and delivers every line in the same wheedling bark, like a queasy child that has recently eaten a hippopotamus, despite being told not to. Beside him, or more often behind him, slender straight man Horne is reduced to raised eyebrows and slapped cheeks in a succession of reaction shots and double-takes. This he does, but not well. The rest of it is clumsy slapstick and boobies.

A joyless visual style, cheap visual effects and arthritic gags combine in a wretched film, pitched at the level of the schoolyard and missing even that broad target by miles. Tittering homage isn’t nearly enough to satisfy a paying audience, comedy needs to be funny. Lesbian Vampire Killers isn’t funny; it’s cynical and lazy and stupid.