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State and Main

State and Main (David Mamet, New Line Productions, 2001)

It is by pure coincidence that my second recommendation also stars an ensemble cast led skilfully by William H Macy (Fargo) and Phillip Seymour Hoffman (The Talented Mr Ripley, Boogie Nights), who both starred in my first recommendation, Magnolia.   I picked up this DVD in a sale when I needed a second film that I did not already own for a Buy 1, Get 1 Free offer.  The cast suggested the film would be worthwhile; I somehow did not notice that the film was written and directed by solid playwright David Mamet (The Winslow Boy, Wag the Dog), nor had I heard anything about it.

Whilst the film was written in the style of Preston Sturges, it is far more intelligent than the average farce.  Its sophisticated sense of satire is entirely accessible and not overly challenging, as some feel Mamet's work sometimes can be.  The quick dialogue is littered with humour in the form of running gags and quirky references, and although few of the jokes will have the audience laughing aloud, they all build up to a warm sense of comfortable entertainment.

The plot centres around the unoriginal idea of a Hollywood film cast and crew descending upon a rural Vermont town in order to make their film 'The Old Mill' after being banned from their previous location in New Hampshire for unspeakable reasons.  Their first problem comes when they learn the town's old mill burned down decades before and there was no money left to build a new one.  Add to that a male lead (played suitably by Alec Baldwin) who has a penchant for 14-year-old girls, and a histrionic bimbo starlet (Sarah Jessica Parker, in the first role where I have enjoyed her performance) who has made her name by stripping off, but suddenly finds religion and cannot face the required nudity for which she had been paid extra.  The fact that she plays a nun in the film, which makes the nudity curious, is yet another subtle laugh that is never flashed in your face, so to speak. 

In addition, the principled new scriptwriter (Hoffman) is more interested in developing a relationship with the soul mate he has found in the wonderful townie played by Broadway actress Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet's wife, also star of The Winslow Boy) than coughing up the necessary re-writes to find a way around the missing mill and the dead horse, since the film team were told, much to their annoyance, that they were not allowed to kill a horse.  Meanwhile, Pidgeon's character's politician fianc tries to milk money from the production team and eventually leads a vendetta against them, in cahoots with the newly vindictive mayor played by Charles Durning, after an unfortunate accident on the corner of State and Main involving Alec Baldwin with some jailbait, played by Julia Stiles (10 Things I Hate About You, Michael Almereyda's Hamlet).

Throughout all the chaos, the sharply focused director, played brilliantly by William H Macy, smoothes over every obstacle whilst clutching a lucky pillow with his motto of 'shoot first, ask questions later' [referring of course to filming, not firing guns], aided by the ruthless, powerful producer played admirably by David Paymer (Amistad, The Larry Sanders Show).

The dilemma that faces the idealistic screenwriter in the end centres on the theme throughout the film, of the importance of truth and the ease of deception.  Mamet's exploration of what drives some people to lie is full of fun, although the film is not so bold and hilarious that it will change your life.  It is just a warm, little pleasant delight.

Patti LuPone also plays a part as the Mayor's social-climbing wife, and she sings the jazzy song over the end credits, appropriately titled 'The Song of the Old Mill,' which was co-written by Mamet.  The end of the film even includes an appearance of the human version (Jonathan Katz) of one of my favourite animated characters: Dr Katz, Professional Therapist.

The US version of the DVD has, of course, many more extras, but the UK version at least includes brief interviews with all the principals, including Mamet himself.  Pick up the DVD, particularly if you find it on sale, if you would like to spend an enjoyable hour and a half or so being fairly amused and watching some extremely talented actors have fun with their parts.

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Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, New Line Home Video, 2000)

Director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson's fantastic Magnolia rightfully won many awards upon its release and received three Oscar nominations--best original screenplay, best supporting actor for Tom Cruise and best original song.

The Robert Altman style screenplay is indeed fascinating, a wonderful string of many apparently different stories remarkably linked  together in the end.  All of the characters are suffering, usually gutted--if not controlled--by their past, and facing a day of meltdown.  Flitting between misery and subtle dark humour, the film is full of twists, and you are consistently suspicious of character's motives, but Anderson reveals most characters to be the opposite of what you expected.  In a way, against all odds, everything ends up exactly as it should.

The Oscar nomination for Cruise is almost a disappointment in its predictability, although this film did remind me, for the first time since Born on the Fourth of July, that Cruise is actually quite a capable actor.  However, the National Board of Review award for Best Ensemble Cast is far more deserved.  In a cast rich with highly respected, talented actors, it is easy to forget that Cruise was one of them, and he certainly does not carry the film, nor is his character the most significant.  Julianne Moore is typically amazing as she drowns in guilt and faces the pain of loss, and Jason Robards plays her dying husband with touching realism, although it is tragic to note that the actor himself was dying during filming.  The ever dependable William H Macy, as a former child celebrity, presents his lost, pathetic character with the usual immaculacy.  Philip Baker Hall's troubled game show host is immensely believable, and it is impossible not to root for the distant happiness that Melora Walters, as the daughter he drove to a drug habit, and the lonely, hapless, admirably moral policeman played perfectly by the fantastic John C Reilly reach for together.

A slimy, unattractive Cruise plays a loathsome apparent misogynist--though you can rarely rely upon your original opinions in this film--who runs crude seminars teaching rejected men how to 'Seduce and destroy' the female friends who don't 'feel that way' about them.  The only overlong part of the three-hour film was the uncomfortable interview of Cruise's character, which was the only fairly predictable element amongst the many magically intertwined tales.

The most engaging actor amongst the cast, playing a sensitive hospice nurse, was Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has since deservedly starred in many more high profile roles as he is an amazing talent. 

Bookending some fascinating characters and tales, including a David Lynch moment in a child's mysterious rap, the film's beginning and ending are remarkably thought-provoking.   The film opens by reporting on three incredible coincidences that actually took place, perhaps to insist that you believe the links in Anderson's film are all possible, and to make the point that Anderson refuses to credit such things to chance.  Then dozens of quick shots and zooms race us from one character's situation to another before we have time to figure out why we are seeing them, but they are interesting nonetheless.  Near the end, Anderson leaves you to figure out the hows and whys of a shower of frogs.

Music is, um, instrumental to the film, and Anderson apparently wrote much of the film to be a vehicle for Aimee Mann's songs, so much so that the original soundtrack is generally considered to be an Aimee Mann album--and a fine one at that.  Her contribution is more noticeable than Jon Brion's instrumental work for the film, and Anderson even has his characters singing lines from Mann's song Wise Up--but tastefully, not in an ensemble piece with kickline. It works.  The song's lyrics fit the film masterfully, beginning 'It's not / What you thought / When you first began it' with a chorus of 'it's not going to stop / 'Til you wise up.'   [A bit of interesting trivia is that comic actor Patton Oswalt played a tiny part as a scuba diver in one of the first scenes, and he once toured with Mann and her husband Michael Penn, brother Sean, solely to provide the in-between song banter as they felt they were not up to it.]  Even without considering the music, the soundtrack is crucial to the film, as it leaks from one scene into another, and the dialogue from one situation is often dubbed over the action of another.  The film would be vastly different if you just listened to it or watched it with the sound turned off.

I believe the best films are either ones that make you think about it for days or ones that are purely enjoyable light entertainment.  Magnolia is both.

I have the Region 1 two-disc DVD, the second disc containing supplemental material such as the usual trailers, television spots and, in case you need advice in that direction, a film of the seminar of Cruise's character.  An additional treat is the beautiful video for Mann's wonderful song Save Me that closes the film, which has her sitting with various characters in different scenes from the film.  Finally, a one-hour documentary by Mark Rance on the making of the film is included, a fascinating insight into the process.  Rather than a polished HBO-type film, this documentary is a video diary where the camera is left running as a voyeur, showing Anderson's screening of Network and Ordinary People for the production crew and including honest comments on the film by the cast.  The way young Anderson tries to convey his brilliant artistic concept to his cast and crew by waving his arms and speaking in terms of 'watch how it's hot and it's cold' amongst a wave of profanity, it is a wonder that the final product emerged as so brilliant.  The very end of the otherwise engaging documentary can happily be skipped, as for some reason it shows us Anderson canoodling with his love, singer Fiona Apple, after they carry too far a joke apparently about his difficulty in dealing with studio bigwigs, repeating it a hundred times when once was too many.

Other than that, every bit of the DVD is marvellous and worth watching several times.

Copyright 2003 by TC. All rights reserved.

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