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Category: Annotated Filmography

Ranking the films of David Mamet: An Annotated Filmography

Screenwriter and director David MametDavid Mamet has distinguished himself as a writer, director and cultural essayist for nearly four decades now. I’ve always loved his well-crafted screenwriting, and over time I’ve also come to appreciate his unadorned style as a director. Because he believes actors should “say the words” without “inflection,” he’s a bit of an acquired taste, I’ll admit. But well worth the trouble.

Where should the Mamet novice begin? Which films will endure? What follows is my own personal ranking of what will A (Always) B (Be) C (Classics) of D (David Mamet)…

The 1980’s

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter (based on the novel by James M. Cain)
Mamet tropes: False confessions, faithless spouses
John’s Rank: #22

Premise: A drifter (Jack Nicholson) falls in lust with a waitress at a roadside diner (Jessica Lange) and they plot to murder her husband. Adapted from the classic noir novel by James M. Cain, it is widely considered to be inferior to the 1946 film version starring James Garfield. Mamet’s then-wife Lindsay Crouse was trying out for a role and Mamet encouraged her to mention to director Bob Rafelson that Mamet was a fan of the novel. Rafelson and Nicholson had been attempting themselves to adapt it, unsuccessfully, and jumped at the chance to work with Mamet, by then an established playwright.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: Not having read the original novel or seen the 1946 Garfield version, it is hard for me to judge Mamet’s work here. Certainly the script and the directing by Bob Rafelson create an environment for some excellent and sexy performances. I do know that the novel continues the story for an additional trial at the end. I’m not sure if it was Mamet or, more likely Rafelson, who decided to leave off the book’s ending. (Rafelson loves ambiguous endings.) But the movie feels incomplete. It also has an intrusive score. Worth watching for the performances and for the cinematography by Swedish master Sven Nykvist, but overall… unsatisfying.

The Verdict (1982)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter (based on the novel by Barry Reed, a draft by Jay Presson Allen was apparently not used)
Mamet tropes: Noble lawyers, one-sided phone conversations, political incorrectness, nepotistic casting
John’s Rank: #2

Premise: Alcoholic, washed-up lawyer Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) lands a medical malpractice case that offers him a final shot at redemption.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: Mamet’s first Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, The Verdict is a deliberate (I won’t say slow) character study and legal drama. The script is as fantastic as is reputed — every moment is building character or moving the plot forward, with huge emotional payoffs. The story is greatly assisted by director Sidney Lumet, d.p. Andrzej Bartkowiak, and the performances of the actors, most notably Paul Newman, who imbues the character of Frank Galvin with real flaws and real hope.  This movie was well-acclaimed upon release, but I get the sense that it is not seen or discussed much of late. That’s a shame. This might be the best courtroom drama ever put on film.

Look for: Mamet’s first wife Lindsay Crouse in a small-but-crucial role.

The Untouchables (1987)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter
Mamet tropes: Eloquent criminals, knife-based plot points, children in peril
John’s Rank: #4

Premise: Treasury agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) forms a group of “untouchable” cops (Sean Connery, Andy Garcia, Charles Martin Smith) to pursue the unofficial mayor of Prohibition Era Chicago, the gangster Al Capone (Robert DeNiro).

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: Mamet’s first major screen script after winning a Pulitzer for the stageplay Glengarry Glen Ross, Untouchables is a classic script and a classic movie. I’m sure it’s the reason Mamet ended up writing a number of other gangster movies for Hollywood. Scene after scene is a textbook of Mamet dialogue and mis-direction. Watching it again recently, not having seen it for probably 15 years, the famous (and largely dialogue-free) scene involving a baby buggy on a staircase seems a bit over-wrought under Brian De Palma’s direction, but the rest of the movie holds up better than I had remembered — largely due to Mamet’s tight and action-packed script. “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way.” A definite favorite.

House of Games (1987)
Mamet’s role: Screenwriter (and co-story credit with Jonathan Katz), Director
Mamet tropes: Long cons, close-up magic, knife-based plot points, switched briefcases, metaphorical games of chance, eloquent criminals, nepotistic casting
John’s Rank: #6

Premise: David Mamet’s directorial debut finds eminent psychologist Dr. Margaret Ford (Mamet’s then-wife Lindsay Crouse) drawn into the world of a gang of confidence men (Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, Mike Nussbaum and more). Are they offering her the thrill her life needs, or is she just a pawn in one of their elaborate schemes?

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: People think of Mamet as a macho director, but this is a movie that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. I liked this movie okay when I first saw it, but was a bit turned off by the ending. Watching it again, I see that Mamet and frequent d.p. Juan Ruiz Anchia have layered in a ton of Freudian imagery and provided some distinct clues for why Crouse’s character behaves how she does. Crouse, following Mamet’s direction, chose to play the character very close to the vest, which makes her more interesting to watch when you see the film a second time. But you don’t need to watch this film more than once to enjoy Joe Mantegna who, as the “honest” confidence man Mike Mancuso, steals the show.

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Ranking the Films of Baz Luhrmann: An Annotated Filmography

Writer / Director Baz LuhrmannWith the release of The Great Gatsby, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back on the career of The Glossy Aussie, Baz Luhrmann. This screenwriter/director began his career with the so-called “Red Curtain” trilogy — a group of films in collaboration with the screenwriter Craig Pearce that reveled in their own theatricality. He followed them with two ambitious Hollywood-style historical spectacles, the aforementioned Gatsby and a paean to his home nation, Australia.

Which of his films are worth watching? Which should you watch first? For a range of opinions, I reached out to filmmakers Yfke van Berckelaer (her Vimeo) and Micah Baskir (aka MTB, aka Jeddy Rice). For good measure, I also surveyed musician Lillian Parker, aka Ukelilli. What follows is our own personal rankings of Luhrmann’s all-singing, all-dancing filmography.

Strictly Ballroom (1992)
Luhrmann’s role: Director, Co-Screenwriter with Andrew Bovell and Craig Pearce
John’s rank: #4
Yfke’s rank: #3
MTB’s rank: #5
Lillian’s rank: #4

Premise: Scott Hastings has been training in ballroom dancing since the age of six with his eye on winning the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix. But his deployment of some non-sanctioned moves in an early qualifier causes a crisis with his partner Liz (Gia Carides), his mum (Pat Thomson) and the sport’s most influential judge (John Hannan). Tara Morice plays the homely Spanish girl Fran who believes in Scott’s new moves and teaches him some moves of her own.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: The acting and directing choices in this film are campier than I normally prefer. The story is almost ridiculously crude (the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix is one-step removed from the Catalina Wine Mixer in Step Brothers as a plot-important event that’s rammed down your throat) and yet… And yet this movie wears its heart on its sleeve, and the heart is in the right place. This is a great introduction to Luhrmann’s no-holds-barred approach to storytelling, and the only place you can see how creative he can be with a limited budget.

Yfke van BerkelaerYfke says: In general I am a big fan of Baz Luhrmann’s work. He has a style all of his own and that’s rare these days. Also, if I can quote my brother on this, “Any male director who can rock two pigtails ranks high in my book!” In this first feature, Luhrmann shows how great he is with combining music with images and his uniquely explosive directorial style. We’ve seen many versions of the Cinderella story and yet in his hands it once again feels totally new.

Micah Baskir thumbnailMTB says: For me this is the most forgettable film Baz Luhrmann has made. I swear I’ve seen this film at least five times and remember next-to-nothing about it — except my lackluster reaction. Like many of Luhrmann’s films, people cherish it deeply. So, curious, I re-watched it to determine what magic I’m missing. With Strictly Ballroom, I can confidently say: nothing. For a man who uses style for substance, this just doesn’t have any of either for me to care about.

Lillian Parker aka Ukelilli thumbnailLillian says: I saw this several years ago and don’t remember it AT ALL. Seems kinda strange for a Baz Luhrmann movie. I don’t think anyone would ever call this man’s work easily forgotten… I don’t remember disliking it. I really want to rewatch — it might land higher up than Romeo + Juliet then. But without the advantage of a recent viewing, I’ll have to put it at #4.

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Ranking the films of Shane Black: An Annotated Filmography

Writer/Director Shane BlackWith the stateside release of Iron Man 3, co-written and fully-directed by Shane Black, many journalism outlets have been taking a look back on The Black Man’s career. If you’re new to Shane Black’s brand of fun action and punchy dialogue, which movies should you watch? Which ones should you watch first? Where does Iron Man 3 fall in the Black cannon?

To help me answer these questions, I’ve recruited Germain Lussier, writer for /Film, Trevor Schoenfeld writer of Schofizzy’s Movie Review and host of the Top 5 Film podcast along with his co-host Jonnie Chang, who also reviews films at No One Man. We’re going to give our personal rankings for each film in Shane Black’s filmography.

Lethal Weapon (1987)
Black’s role: Screenwriter
John’s Rank: #3
Germain’s Rank: #3
Trevor’s Rank: #1
Jonnie’s Rank: #1

Premise: L.A.P.D. Homicide Sergeant Murtaugh (Danny Glover) gets paired with loose cannon narcotics cop Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) to take down a drug ring run by Vietnam vets. Gary Busey plays the (also loony) enforcer of the “Shadow Company,” Mr. Joshua.

Filmmaker and writer John Ott on the set of independent film The Battle of Bunker Hill.John says: I didn’t get around to seeing this action movie classic until pretty recently, and I was quite impressed how well it has aged. Even though buddy cop stories with one wild partner and one who is “too old for this shit” have become cliché, I had no problem being constantly surprised by the story. While there are some ridiculousnesses, especially in the villain department, this is a more grounded version of Shane Black and therefore one that remains a great introduction to his oeuvre.

Slashfilm writer Germain LussierGermain says: Much like Die Hard after it, it’s easy to underestimate just how influential this film is. Sure, films like 48 Hours preceded it, but almost all modern cop or buddy films have their DNA in Shane Black’s unique blend of twists, turns, humor and violence. We all remember the film for its dialogue and action but watching it again, the Riggs character is really way more complex and interesting than this film deserves. Unfortunately, the franchise loses that edge moving ahead.

Trevor ShoenfeldTrevor says: Shane Black’s first script also happens to be my introduction to his work. I remember going to see Lethal Weapon with my father in theaters at 10-years-old when it opened and walking away loving the action comedy. It is my first exposure to an R-rated buddy comedy. As a kid, I didn’t realize how much of Black’s style seeped through into Riggs and Murtaugh. Going back and revisiting as an adult, however, Black’s sense of sarcasm and wit really shines in his first script. This brings up a quality about Black that is so great, his ability to reach both young and older audiences with his characters. As a kid, I loved the characters he created and the situations he put them in. As an adult, I am far more impressed with his knack for developing characters versus the situations he puts them in.

jonathan changJonnie says: An instant classic. Black’s witty dialogue and whip-smart plotting established — and still holds, arguably — the gold standard for explosive action fare in a modern setting. Mixing the right amount of comedy with the perfect dose of action has been re-attempted — with minimal success — by countless films that followed it, proving that Black’s voice was, and still is, truly unique. Lethal Weapon‘s pacing, story, and most importantly, characters, define the best of the genre, going over the top in just the right places, but never forgetting the importance of staying true to its dark-but-fun tone. Black perfectly showcases his abilities as a screenwriter with the alchemy of action and comedy deployed throughout the film. It’s an untouchable.

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