Here, There, Everywhere

This year's Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival is bigger and ... well, bigger

State and Main

Playwright-filmmaker David Mamet's latest isn't as intricate and involving as his House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner, but it's a lively piece of entertainment. Nor is it the definitive satire of contemporary Hollywood, an honor that has to go to Altman's The Player, even though it often hits its targets with deadly accuracy.

The prolific Mamet must have had some sour experiences since he took up moviemaking in 1987, and this is his vehicle for venting his frustrations with the ways Hollywood does business. It's about what happens -- what goes wrong, mostly -- when the cast and crew of a production called The Old Mill descend on a tiny, picturesque New Hampshire town to make a movie.

Or more accurately, to prepare for making a movie. The time frame is the final few days before shooting actually begins, and the company is under increasing pressure to get things right. For reasons never made fully clear, this gang has just been run out of Vermont, and quaint Waterford, known for its old mill, appears to be their perfect location, with a mayor and residents eager to cooperate with the production.

David Mamet puts his pen on the trials and tribulations of Hollywood
David Mamet puts his pen on the trials and tribulations of Hollywood

The picture is populated with “types” that are no less amusing for their familiarity. Alec Baldwin (who executive-produced) is a Lothario of a leading man whose taste runs to underage girls. Julia Stiles is a teenage temptress more than willing to oblige him. Sarah Jessica Parker is a temperamental actress who suddenly turns prudish, demanding an additional $800,000 to show her breasts onscreen even though, as we are repeatedly reminded, countless moviegoers could sketch them from memory. Charles Durning and Patti LuPone are the starstruck mayor and his wife.

More fully fleshed out (and far funnier) are The Old Mill's director and producer. The former is played by Mamet mainstay William H. Macy as a veteran show-biz pro who can shift gears in a flash, going from unctuously caring and supportive to acid-tongued and unforgiving. The latter is portrayed with relish by David Paymer, who arrives midstory to administer Hollywood-style ruthlessness when required.

A major subplot involves the strange relationship that evolves between the first-time screenwriter, gently underplayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and an enigmatic bookstore owner with encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything, played by Mamet's wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, much more effective here than she was in The Spanish Prisoner.

State and Main is patchy, with stretches that drone and drag, and its Hollywood insiderism may not be for mainstream tastes. But hey, that's what makes it an ideal film festival selection. (Screen 7:00 p.m. Friday, October 27, at Shadowood, Boca Raton; 9:00 p.m. Friday, November 10, at Galleria, Fort Lauderdale. One hundred six minutes.)

Breaking Out
If elements of this Swedish drama seem vaguely familiar, it's because the story is a loose variation on the 1987 American movie Weeds, in which a playwright/prison inmate played by Nick Nolte forms an acting troupe made up of ex-cons after he's released from jail. Here the scenario is about an unemployed actor named Reine (the overly earnest Björn Kjellman) who accepts a three-month temporary job as recreation director at a maximum-security prison, in hopes he can use prisoners in his ward to realize his dream of staging a play.

Not surprisingly Reine runs into resistance from a veteran guard and the tough guy who controls the ward from the inside by intimidating the other prisoners. And even though the warden, nicely portrayed by Viveka Seldahl, is intrigued by Reine's proposal, she's been burned before: “When I came here, I led a beautifying project for the basement corridors. They were to be painted by the prisoners.... It ended up with them sitting in a corner sniffing solvents. Since then we are a little more cautious about new suggestions.”

We're thereby cued that the underdog actor will somehow pull off his unlikely stage production. In the process he'll also somehow redeem the hardened criminals who sign on to work with him, even though their ulterior motive is to stage an escape when the play is performed in the outside world.

The material has uplifting written all over it, and sure enough, in amazingly short order, the cons are bonding and performing goofy exercises to get in touch with their emotions. The spectacle is sometimes embarrassingly touchy-feely, and you'll probably be able to guess the ending well before its arrival. Still, the half-dozen actors playing Reine's ragtag troupe have their moments. There's a surprisingly touching bit in which, before a field trip to a theater, the cons are reunited with the clothes they wore when they first came to the prison, and they revel in the feel and smell of their street clothes. And a hulking blond inmate, winningly played by Shanti Roney, gets to explore a broader range of personality than most of his fellow prisoners.

But most of the characters are so sketchily defined that it's hard to get much of a handle on them. Had the filmmakers given their clearly talented players more to work with, Breaking Out might have transcended its formula. (Screens 7:00 p.m. Sunday, October 29, at Shadowood, Boca Raton; 5:30 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, November 4, at Gateway, Fort Lauderdale; 1:30 p.m. Sunday, November 5, at Gateway. One hundred eight minutes; in Swedish with English subtitles.)

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