Wednesday, May 26, 2010
In a world dominated by chick flicks and rom-coms there are precious few directors out there who specialize in content for men. Sure, there are plenty of action movies and war movies but these are often big picture extravaganzas that are excruciatingly long, incredibly dumb and embarrassing to watch. The likes of Michael Bay and Tony Scott are usually the guilty parties behind these yawn fests. These are not movies for men, these are movies for morons.
One of the few directors making movies for men is David Mamet. Mamet started out as a playwright and his films have the dynamic of good theatre in that you have to pay attention or you will get lost and not know what the hell is going on. The plots are often labyrinthine with many red herrings and duplicitous characters that are meant to lead you up the garden path and generally make you feel like a chump, which is more fun than it sounds. Mamet clearly takes a special delight in this cinematic sleight of hand and indeed the world of movies is nothing if not smoke and mirrors. The other distinctive trademark of a Mamet film is bizarrely mannered language and unique speech patterns. It is a masculine language, filled with expletives and the kind of inane banter that men take pleasure in. It also has a curious rhythm all of its own, a kind of signature style that has now become instantly recognisable and (in)famous in its own right. Like it or not, it is always interesting to listen to and, like a good play, reveals something new each time you experience it. Quentin Tarantino tries to emulate his technique but usually fails. So distinctive is his writing style that some of the best Mamet movies were not directed by Mamet, but belong to him nonetheless by virtue of his unique talents.
Mamet's films are often explorations of secret societies, largely hidden from view, and seldom encountered by ordinary individuals. Whether it be the criminal world of the conman and the homicide cop, or the physical culture of the special forces operative and the martial artist, Mamet brings a documentarian's approach to each of them, providing a rare insight into a little seen corner of society that more often than not lives by its wits. In these shadowy worlds, the ability to think on your feet is the ultimate skill.
House of Games (1987)
Mamet's first film as a director introduces us to the world of the con man, a subject he would return to again and again throughout his career. The life of the confidence artist, where nothing is as it seems, is perfect Mamet material. In order to explore the shadowy world of the con man, he takes a foil in the form of psychiatrist who gets a taste of the action and is drawn to these mysterious and exotic criminals like a moth to a flame. Mamet uses this as an excuse to roll out some of this favourite long and short cons and much of the pleasure of the film lies with watching how the marks get taken in one elaborate ruse after another. In the process, the shrink, played by Lindsey Crouse, gets an education she won't forget in a hurry. The movie featured some of Mamet's favourite players, including Joe Mantegna, William H Macy and Ricky Jay, himself an illusionist of some repute, and introduced the world to his trademark staccato dialogue.
This time round Mamet uses the police procedural as his template but again it is the pitfalls of assuming anything that lie at the heart of this intriguing drama. Mantegna plays a homicide cop who loses his objectivity when he is called to the scene of a murder that may or may not have racial overtones. As he gets sucked into the world of right wing extremism, his cultural heritage takes over from his training and he is conned into doing something completely against his code. An intriguing story that keeps you guessing right up to the end, featuring all the usual hallmarks of a tightly written Mamet piece and fine performances from Mamet regulars Joe Mantegna and William H Macy as the leads.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
The cinematic equivalent of a punch in the gut, the screenplay for Glengarry Glen Ross firmly established Mamet as a writer of some repute, earning him several nods from the big-wig Hollywood establishment as well as the Pulitzer Prize. The story concerns the dog-eat-dog world of the real estate salesman, where humanity and dignity are sacrificed daily in order to get on 'the board', which keeps track of the sales you have racked up for the month. Things get even more Darwinian when the head of sales, in a scorching cameo by Alec Baldwin, comes down to give the team a little pep talk which basically boils down to: "the top two guys stay, everyone else is out of a job." The resulting scramble as the stunned group try to top each other and keep their jobs is heart wrenching to watch. The film featured a dream cast, including then little known future stars like Ed Harris and Kevin Spacey, as well as established heavy weights Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin and Al Pacino. Its a gruelling experience, laced with deadly black humour that makes you laugh in spite of yourself. Anyone who has ever had to swim through the shark tank of the corporate world will recognise all the characters here in an instant. The truly sobering thought, of course, is which one is you?
The Edge (1997)
Helmed in muscular fashion by Kiwi director Lee Tamahori, The Edge remains very much a Mamet piece, with all his favourite themes in place. Thanks to the typically unreliable single engine airplane, three very different men are thrown into a situation that will push them to the limits and reveal their true selves. Anthony Hopkins plays a bookish billionaire with a very hot wife who has to battle the elements in one of the most remote wildernesses on the planet in the company of two fellow survivors - a pro photographer played by Alec Baldwin and his sidekick Stephen (Harold Perrineau). Stalking the men is the fourth main player, a 10 foot grizzly bear with a taste for human flesh. Naturally as this is a Mamet movie, the bear is not the most dangerous thing in the wilderness, as we soon find out. A little more straightforward than most of his films, The Edge nevertheless contains several characteristic Mamet twists and turns, enough to keep things interesting anyway. It is enjoyable chiefly for its stunning location in the Alaskan wilderness and the interplay between the very fine Anthony Hopkins and the hugely underrated Alec Baldwin. The bear is pretty damn good too, particularly when ripping limb from limb in a most convincing fashion.
Possibly the quintessential Mamet film in that it utilises all of his strengths with equal aplomb, Spartan enters the opaque world of the special forces operative - highly trained individuals frequently called upon to lay their lives on the line for total strangers without question. The plot concerns the kidnapping by white slavers of a young woman who just happens to be the president's only daughter. The identity of the victim originally remains unknown to the slavers (a bit of stretch to be sure) and this means there is a brief window to allow the black bag operatives to get to her before she is spirited away and eventually killed as too great a liability. Enter Bobby Scott, a man of particular skills and singular mindset who is set loose to track the girl down. What follows is a finely crafted thriller, packed with delightful Mametian dialogue and short, sharp episodes of violence as Scott uses his unique talents to track the girl down. Spartan is largely satisfying due to the twisty plot, gritty action sequences and excellent work of the players, as Mamet draws lead Val Kilmer to new heights while squeezing superb cameos out of the likes of Tia Texada, Ed O'Neill and Kristin Bell as the hapless victim. Mark Isham's score is also highly effective, driving the action along with a theme that is both haunting and urgent. Look out for the commentary by Val Kilmer on the DVD, which is good for several chuckles. Mamet was so taken by the special forces that he went on to create a TV series about Delta Force called The Unit, starring Dennis Haysbert, Scott Foley and Max Martini, several episodes of which he has written and directed himself, stamping his own unique signature on it in the process.
For his latest outing Mamet again chose to examine a world that is largely unknown, that of competitive martial arts. A long time Jiu-Jitsu practitioner himself, Mamet's film turned out to be oddly timeous, as the MMA phenomenon continues to grow in popularity, with the big pay-out as supplied by TV viewing rights potentially set to undermine the sport in the same way that boxing eventually lost all credibility due to the influence of shady money men. The plot focuses on the honour code that has long been the backbone of the martial world, choosing a highly accomplished Jiu-Jitsu practitioner as its foil. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor plays MikeTerry, who despite being a world-renowned martial artist has instead chosen to own a small dojo, where he teaches Jiu-Jitsu and barely scrapes a living. When a rape victim comes into his dojo one night to ask for directions, it sets off a chain of events that will have major consequences for Terry. Ultimately his world begins to fall apart as everyone around him tries to get him to employ his unique skills for their own devious ends. In the end Mike turns the tables on them and we are treated to a spectacular display of martial arts courtesy of the highly convincing Ejiofor and renowned Jiu-Jitsu fighter John Machado. The film could possibly be construed as a commentary on Hollywood, another high pressure environment where good people are often corrupted and tempted to betray their finer artistic instincts by the promise of large sums of cash, gorgeous women and a writing credit.