State and Main

Rebecca Pidgeon and Philip Seymour Hoffman in State and Main

 

 

An intelligent and acidic if somewhat stagey comedy about a film production descending on a small New England town and the effect that each has on the other. It’s written and directed by David Mamet, not known for out and out comedy, but clearly feeling flighty at the moment, flighty enough to turn out the sort of farce you might expect from the French, or from Michael Frayn. And Mamet has the cast to perform it – Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Julia Stiles and a surprisingly good Alec Baldwin, all of them upping their game in homage to a master of the blunt misanthropic object who has spent enough time writing and directing films to know what the standard types are, and how to polish them. So we get the innocent writer (Hoffman) who doesn’t want a word of his script changed; the tyro two-faced director (Macy) doglike in devotion or attack, depending on who he’s talking to; the female star (Sarah Jessica Parker) who suddenly gets coy about whipping her top off; the male star (Baldwin) with a penchant for jailbait; the jailbait (Stiles) with a penchant for male stars; the cameraman in a beret; the schlemiel of a producer. And so on. Meanwhile, there’s the occupants of the hayseed town they descend on, including Charles Durning and Patti LuPone. They’re hayseeds, but funny hayseeds, every bit as venal as the film folk, but they’ve just had less time to perfect their shtick. Under the farce plotting of wild coincidence and Mamet’s satirical stabs, the film seems to be saying something about how far “entertainment” (when someone else does it and you watch) is from “fun” (when you do it yourself) and how the movies are somehow killing us all. Movie critics, most of them armchair-loving lazy asses, not surprisingly didn’t like State and Main very much. And of course they’re right to be cagey, Mamet being an entertainment mogul, and all.

© Steve Morrissey 2001

 

State and Main – at Amazon

 

 

A Slight Case of Murder

William H Macy in A Slight Case of Murder

 

One of those feelgood made-for-TV films that’s somehow managed to net a great cast as they were commuting between better paying jobs.

I suspect that that’s because William H Macy is involved, David Mamet’s favourite actor being the star and the adapter of Donald Westlake’s novel about a film critic who kills his girlfriend by accident and then uses his film buffery to cover up the crime. It’s a neat conceit obviously designed to appeal to film lovers, who get double helpings when the cop on the accidental killer’s tail (Adam Arkin) also turns out to be a film buff himself.

Comic noir is the prevailing tone, once the film’s initial skittishness has dissipated, with black humour as back-up for people who aren’t quite catching the film references. Best of all are the “oh god don’t do that, you’ll only make it worse” moments.

Macy has just the face to pull this sort of innocent abroad shtick. Always great as a dupe, he’s especially good here because this is one of those very knowing films (there’s lots of breaking of the fourth wall with Macy’s addresses to camera) where the critic is convinced he’s one step ahead of the law, yet we’re generally one step ahead of the both of them.

If it never quite hits the Billy Wilder heights it has probably set its sights on, Felicity Huffman (Macy’s wife in real life), James Cromwell and Paul Mazursky are among those making A Slight Case of Murder an enjoyably slight case of entertainment.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2000

 

A Slight Case of Murder – at Amazon

 

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Wild Hogs

Martin Lawrence, John Travolta, Tim Allen and William H Macy

 

 

Four suburban guys, all losers in different ways, go on a cross country trip on their Hogs – that’s Harley Davidsons to the uninitiated. The guys are John Travolta, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence and William H. Macy. En route to wherever they get mistaken for gays, find themselves on the wrong side of a group of real, hairy assed bikers (led by Ray Liotta) and one of them even finds love with a waitress (Marisa Tomei in a cheerleader-ish succession of “I’m hot” poses). Tim Allen and Martin Lawrence as buddies? Yes, it’s a stretch, but no more than imagining William H Macy and John Travolta cracking open a couple of beers after a hard day. But the big question about Wild Hogs is not “is this movie funny?” – scripted by Arrested Development writer Brad Copeland, it certainly has its guffaw-inducing moments – but “who is it for?” Judging by the twee Preston Sturges/Frank Capra depiction of smalltown America, the soundtrack heavy with the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Me Generation self-help manual themes and Tim Allen’s character’s assertion that, at 54, he’s only “technically” middle aged, the answer would appear to be – people who are dead or no longer go to the movies.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Wild Hogs – at Amazon

 

 

 

Magnolia

Tom Cruise in Magnolia

 

 

Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to Boogie Nights disappointed those who were hoping for more Dirk Diggler and his prosthetic schlong. At 182 minutes it also caught out those who were watching at the cinema with a beer or two inside them – knotted legs don’t make for maximum movie fun. At home with a pause button it’s pure luxury. Stylistically it’s heavily in debt to one of Anderson’s readily acknowledged influences, Robert Altman – the overlapping dialogue, the wandering camera and the faintly disengaged performances. By which I mean the actors are not all constantly presenting three-quarter profiles to camera (no, not even Tom Cruise).

Yes, Tom Cruise. How often is it that you can see Tom Cruise in a film that’s not a Tom Cruise film? In terms of plot Magnolia is multi-stranded, with lots of characters, each starring, to some extent, in their own mini-movie. That’s Altmanesque too (see Short Cuts). But Anderson’s theme is all his own. He follows a bunch of flash, empty characters – among them the trophy wife (Julianne Moore), the over-eager sex guru (Tom Cruise), the former child star (William H Macy), the ineffectual policeman (John C Reilly) – as they descend into an existential inferno of their own making. Except for one man (Jason Robards), whose take on existential activity is coloured by the fact that the Grim Reaper is sharpening the scythe in the hospital ward his intubated body is currently occupying. No, not literally the Grim Reaper, that was a figure of speech. Though at the end of the film, after he’s spun his separate stories closer to coherence, Anderson does do something which shatters the absolute matter-of-factness of everything that’s come before. And if you haven’t got wind of his most oddball of endings, I won’t ruin it. Magnolia is not a film for plot-junkies but it does deliver something rather magical in its place – virtuoso zeitgeist film-making with a message that could have been lifted from a medieval morality play.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 Magnolia – at Amazon