At last a bone to gnaw on. Not a very meaty bone, only a very scrappy bone, but a bone nonetheless. State of Play, the Americanization of a BBC miniseries, qualifies as a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller, and from more than one type of headline: the political sex scandal, the privatization of the military, the death throes of newspapers. The topicality inevitably gives rise to some soapboxing, and along with it some playing on the pieties of the audience, though it is doubtful whether this either enhances or erodes the main business of generating thrills. There appear at first to be two distinct police cases: first, in the gritty and grippy opening, the fatal shooting of a black street kid and critical shooting of an innocent passerby, and second the apparent suicide of a Pennsylvania congressman’s mistress under the wheels of a subway train. At the fictitious Washington Globe (a stand-in for the Post, as there’s no room in the present climate for a superfluous daily), hungry for quick profit under new owners, the veteran beat reporter (a chunky Russell Crowe beneath a Samson-esque lion’s mane) follows the first trail, debarred from the second by his personal friendship since college days with the compromised congressman (a trim and trimmed Ben Affleck), who is currently chairing a committee to look into Defense Department outsourcing. The second case falls by default to a shoot-first online blogger (a cheeky Rachel McAdams), to the disdain of the old-school reporter.
The first thrill, or tingle at least, comes when the two cases converge: the reporter diligently dialling the numbers on the dead kid’s cellphone (and amusingly putting on a homeboy patois for the purpose) and eventually getting the answering machine of the dead mistress. Whoa. What’s the connection? Other, bigger thrills arrive in due course, including a shocking second attack on the hospitalized survivor in the first case, and the reporter’s sudden running into and hasty running away from the identified assassin, leading to a well-played game of hide-and-seek in the favorite locale of a parking ramp. Along the way, there are good turns from Helen Mirren as the pragmatic newspaper editor, Robin Wright Penn as the adulterous wife of the adulterous politician, Jeff Daniels as a Capitol Hill éminence grise, and, most show-stoppingly, Jason Bateman as a hopped-up P.R. man in the thick of the skullduggery. And director Kevin Macdonald, of The Last King of Scotland and assorted documentaries, keeps the traffic moving swiftly down the investigative path, stressing the topical issues no more than necessary to allay the guilt of viewers who couldn’t enjoy the thrills if they couldn’t cluck their tongues over war profiteering or fret over the fate of the free press. In the end, the plotting descends into mechanical trickery for its own sake, but by then the starving moviegoer should be in a frame of mind to take what he has got.
17 Again, for the Zac Efron Fan Club, is a second-chance fantasy that, through the agency of a bewhiskered supernatural school janitor, sends the middle-age-crazy hero not back in time, but back in age, back to the high school of his youth, so that he must fend off the incestuous flirtations of his teenage daughter and make age-inappropriate advances to the disaffected wife he had long since lost interest in (and who, incidentally, has the minimum mental wherewithal to notice, if not to make adequate fuss about, his uncanny resemblance to the boy she married twenty years ago). We expect to encounter logic problems in any time-travel tale, so it’s best not to compound them with extraneous nonsense whereby the daughter’s brutish boyfriend — inexplicable in itself — would also be her brother’s chief bully and tormentor. And it’s hard to be happy at a happy ending that assumes the wife, who has travelled nowhere, would have learned the same lessons as her time-tripping husband. Leslie Mann, seemingly doomed to subsist at the level of Drillbit Taylor, Knocked Up, Big Daddy, The Cable Guy, et al., is very good as the wife, carrying a lot of tension, intelligence, sensitivity, pain, and whatnot in her pop eyes and pursed mouth, without ever forgetting she’s in a comedy. One of the little aggravations of modern moviegoing is that you can’t have a Leslie Mann without a Zac Efron or an Owen Wilson or a Seth Rogen or an Adam Sandler or a Jim Carrey. The compensation she provides, although not small, is not sufficient.
It has been several years since my first and only visit to the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater, or more currently and correctly the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center IMAX Dome Theater. Renovations completed at the end of last year, together with God knows what other technological fine-tuning in the digital projection, have given the presentation a new look. The seams in the screen are no longer plainly visible in the picture, in effect transforming a patchwork mainsail into the concave side of a giant eggshell. And the digital image has been bracingly sharpened up, with only slight distortion at the edges. “The Ultimate Movie Experience,” if it says so itself. Under the Sea, all forty minutes of it, proves to be an ideal subject for the format, ideal, that is, for the built-in disorientation of looking at a screen as big as the sky, ideal for subaqueous creatures beyond the science-fictional imagination of any CGI wizard. (See the Leafy Sea Dragon for verification, or for that matter the Weedy Sea Dragon. Egad.) Sight unseen, I imagine it would be less than ideal, by comparison, to view the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh on that scale, as you are invited to do in the alternating Van Gogh: Brush with Genius, through the end of April only. Somehow, when we’ve lost our bearings anyway, the magnification of a Potato Cod to the dimensions of Moby Dick isn’t so objectionable. The educative narration (spoken by a subdued Jim Carrey) contains, in addition to the I.D.’s and M.O.’s of the creatures, the obligatory global-warming warnings, but these are nowhere near as alarming as the spectacle of a tortoise tearing away the flesh of a jellyfish (who would have thought?) or of a cuttlefish cracking the shell of a living crab. I don’t know if it’s a movie, but it’s an experience all right.