By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
STATE AND MAIN
Several Americas collide in State and Main, a very funny new film written and directed by David Mamet. The place is rural Vermont, where a picturesque town has been taken over by a film company, there to make a period feature called The Old Mill. “Does it have to be a mill?” becomes the question when it’s discovered that the one in the town’s brochure actually burned down half a century before. The psychological Grand Canyon that divides Hollywood from the rest of the country fuels a wealth of fresh, fish-out-of-water satire in the same instant that, paradoxically, Mamet shows how movies succeed precisely because America is the land where everybody has a big fantasy and, on some level, wants to be a star — or at least enjoy what he imagines to be a star’s freedom (that being the most toxic fantasy of all). William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rebecca Pidgeon, David Paymer, Alec Baldwin and Julia Stiles all harmonize wonderfully in the mix of farce and morality play that Mamet typically balances so well, as he piles a wide assortment of treacheries atop the eighth commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Plainly, this is a piece of advice the movie business never heeds enough. Mamet takes it to heart, and with a smile.
The crisis seems deceptively simple in retrospect — the Russians had planted a set of nuclear missiles in Cuba — but the danger was absolute to men who, when young, had risked their lives ridding the world of Hitler, among them U.S. President John F. Kennedy. For a fortnight in October of 1962, the world (to use a shopworn but still potent phrase) stood not only at the brink of war but of complete annihilation. Thirteen Days is a vivid and urgent chronicle of those two weeks, seen from the personal viewpoint of Kenneth O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), who was a key aide to President Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) and lifelong chum of first brother and attorney general Robert Kennedy (Steven Culp). Writer David Self has clearly read and absorbed all the most thorough accounts of the crisis, and the result is a refreshing breakaway from both idolatry and cynicism. New Zealand–born director Roger Donaldson (Smash Palace, The Bounty, No Way Out) uses his native detachment well to regard these wildly mythologized figures as the rounded, flawed but fundamentally remarkable men they were. For the real struggle, he suggests, was not with the Soviets, who had basically strayed into a self-made trap. It was a cold ä war between violently opposed philosophies, represented at one end by the diplomatic stealth of the Kennedys and Adlai Stevenson (wonderfully played by Michael Fairman), versus the bomb-communism-to-hell lunacy of generals like Curtis LeMay (Kevin Conway). Across this abyss stretched a WASP power structure from which the Kennedys were no less alienated. The intimate dialogue is sometimes wooden (“You’re president of the United States. The people can wait”), and Costner’s Boston accent sometimes sticks out like a licorice mustache. But Greenwood (whose boar-bristle voice projected such virile menace in The Sweet Hereafter) is an ideal JFK, and the film movingly dramatizes his heroism as being (like his arrogance) the byproduct of an agile intelligence. Sheer verbal acumen not only enabled the president and his brother to craft shrewd responses to Soviet threats, but freed them from the entrenched thinking of their own advisers. However brief JFK’s moment of glory, this film makes a persuasive case that he was, like FDR and Lincoln, above all a commander of language.
Adapted by Tom Stoppard from a screenplay by Jeanne Labrune, and directed by Roland Joffé, Vateldramatizes the true story of Francois Vatel (Gérard Depardieu), the master steward to a 17th-century French country prince. When Louis XIV arrives with his court in tow for a three-day visit, the fate of the prince, a skilled general who is also deeply in debt, hinges on his steward’s extraordinary talent for entertaining — with France on the verge of war, a favorable impression could mean a military commission and monetary relief. Also a general of sorts, Vatel coordinates armies of cooks, craftsmen and performers to stage extravagant parties fit for a sun king. “Harmony and contrast, all beauty comes from these things,” he tells his apprentice. That idea is at the heart of the film, which is itself a fugue of balancing acts — between the splendor of the festivities and the dread that underlies them, between Vatel’s freedom to create and the servitude that compels him to create for others, even between the film’s carefully coordinated color scheme and Joffé’s fondness for parallel imagery. (A sequence with feet that begins the film is brilliantly matched to another at its end.) The symbolism can be less deft — caged birds, a deer hunt — and the filmmakers are not above corset-drama bed-hopping and back-stabbing. It’s more delicious than not, though, when the beds and backs belong to Uma Thurman, as a willful lady in waiting, Tim Roth, as a piquantly scheming Marquis, and Julian Sands, who endows Louis with a modicum of cunning as well as the requisite self-absorption.
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