I’m slammed for time this week: working furiously on the book, taking meetings about a new TV project, writing the column, and traveling and doing a shoot for “Starz Inside.” But I wanted to get in a few words about two new movies: “State of Play” and “Sugar.”
With the exception of “Mr. 3000,” nearly every baseball movie of the last few decades, whether it was set in the distant past or a parallel universe of the present, has featured a charismatic, flawed white guy. Robert Redford in “The Natural.” All those guys in “Eight Men Out.” Dennis Quaid in “The Rookie.” Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams.” Kevin Costner in “Bull Durham.” Kevin Costner in “For the Love of the Game.”
“Sugar” is a small and consistently authentic look at the experience of one Latin American prospect as he rises through the lower minor league ranks, seemingly on his way to a Pedro Martinez-like career as a major league superstar in the United States. Through the eyes of this 20-year-old Miguel “Sugar” Santos, a gifted pitcher from the Dominican Republic, we experience the exhilaration of triumphs on the field, the culture shock as he finds himself living with a family in Iowa while playing for a Class A team, and the hard lessons he learns about the disposable nature of prospects who get injured or hit the wall. Though it feels like a documentary at times, “Sugar” is a slice of fiction that knows its subject through and through. Stellar direction from Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden.
“State of Play” is the kind of movie that made me fall in love with movies. It’s one of those sprawling, complicated, “this is bigger than any of us” conspiracy thrillers with an all-star cast. The kind of movie where the reporter (played by Russell Crowe) is summoned to the editor’s office, and when we first get a glimpse of the editor, of course it’s Helen Mirren, because you expect people like Helen Mirren to be in a movie like this.
Based on a six-part British mini-series that aired on the BBC earlier this decade, “State of Play” has been updated to reflect the tenor of the times in the journalism business. There’s a lot of talk about the dying print industry and the emergence of the blogosphere, and sometimes the movie gets that exactly right, and sometimes the characters utter lines that are laughable, e.g., when a star blogger says one particular story is just too big for the Internet and should wait for the morning edition. Yeah, that would happen. On Mars.
With unkempt hair and the physique of a has-been athlete 20 years past his prime, Russell Crowe is the quintessential old-school investigative reporter with the ramshackle apartment, the lack of social skills, the myriad contacts and the overwhelming desire to find the truth. His former college roommate is a hotshot congressman (Ben Affleck). They’ve been estranged for years, due in no small part to complications involving the congressman’s wife (Robin Wright. Or she is still Robin Wright Penn? Either way, she’s excellent, as always.) When the congressman’s mistress commits suicide—-or was it suicide?—-Crowe is on the case, with the help of his newspaper’s new Internet gossip sensation, played by Rachel McAdams.
The story is peeled back to reveal truth after truth after truth. And then a twist. And then maybe another twist, or is it really a twist? Even with a running time of 2 hours and 12 minutes, “State of Play” feels rushed in the last 20 minutes or so, as the team of screenwriters and director Kevin Macdonald struggle a bit to tie up every loose end and then give us more. The performances are excellent, the script for the most part well-written, the direction is strong. “State of Play” is a good but not great thriller with some excellent insights into the news-gathering business—and a few glaring missteps. There are at least two scenes that would have been flagged by any reporter I know as utterly unrealistic.
“Sugar” 3.5 stars out of 5.
“State of Play” 3 stars out of 5.