The Untouchables 1987 *****


Sequel and prequels (Capone Rising) have come to nothing; Brian De Palma’s 1987 gangster opus remains one of the best examples of reworking a hit tv show on an epic scale. There’s an operatic sweep to the story of Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner), the FBI-enforcer who sets out to bring down Al Capone (Robert De Niro) with the help of an old Chicago cop (Sean Connery). Also a couple of the effects now show their age, and the film’s budgetary concerns are visible, The Untouchables has one great scene after another; the store bombing, the first border raid and it’s bloody aftermath, the baseball scene, the railway-station shoot out, the show-down with Frank Nitti (the late, great Billy Drago). Costner fits his white-collar character like a glove, and Charles Martin Smith and Andy Garcia make ideal support. David Mamet’s script also crackles with great dialogue, and De Palma’s sweeping camera and desire to entertain made The Untouchables an instant classic.


Wag the Dog 1997 ***


In the ‘post-truth’ era, it’s easy to get nostalgic for a time when news was news. David Mamet’s playful Wag The God, back in 1997, shows there’s nothing new under the sun as a Hollywood producer and a spin doctor contrive a war to cover up a Presidential sex-scandal. With heavyweight leads in Robert de Niro (as the PR) and Dustin Hoffman (as the Robert Evans-type producer) , Wag the Dog feels stagey in a good way, never resorting to action when it can show through character and conversation how the media can create it’s own truth. Now that it can be divorced from the Bill Clinton era, Wag The Dog seems to hold a more universal truth and ever. Anyone looking at the Trump/Clinton debate circus and wondering ‘how could this happen?’ would do well to take a look at this clever film about what sticks and what doesn’t, and why post-truth is one step closer to post-apocalypse.

Phil Spector 2013 ***


Only David Mamet would be so deliberately obtuse as to make a feature-length film about a famous trial and halt the action before the trial even starts; the great playwrights focus is on something other than courtroom melodrama in this television drama about the trail of Phil Spector. Played by Al Pacino in a variety of ever-more outrageous wigs, Mamet positions the notorious producer as a man out of time, ranting and raving about the injustices of the music industry while somehow unaware of the bigger picture of his impending conviction for the murder of Lana Clarkson. Pacino is on top form, matched every inch of the way by Helen Mirren as attorney Linda Kenney Baden, who puts aside her own drowsiness with the flu to consider whether Spector has a case to defend. Mamet balances trail by jury with trial by media, and uncovers some outlandish facts, including the reasons for Spector’s bizarre wigs in this wordy by fascinating production.

Deceptive Practice; The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay 2012 ****


Providing exactly what the title suggests, Molly Bernstein’s documentary is a playful investigation of the popular magician and his art; as he discusses the various performers who have influenced him, Ricky Jay also reveals much about his own motivations. A scene in which a BBC reporter who professes no belief in magic tricks, describes her amazement at how Jay could produce a block of ice from behind his menu is a restaurant on a swelteringly hot day is all the more interesting for Jay’s unwillingness to share the secrets behind it. And there’s also plenty of rare Jay footage to enjoy; an appearance of the Dinah Shore show features amusing support from Steve Martin, who appears wise to Jay’s antics until a deft card trick puts him in his place. Deceptive Practice is a magic show with brains, a deft slight-of-hand that leaves audiences confused yet entertained.

Vanya on 42nd Street 1994 ****


David Mamet adapts Anton Chehkov’s play Uncle Vanya for director Louis Malle in the 1994 film, but the action is mainly restricted to a Broadway theatre where the play’s cast are rehearsing. There are few props, the actors are wearing their street clothes, and there are breaks for discussion and rehearsal. This experimental approach blows the cobwebs off the play, with George Gaynes (Lassard from Police Academy) showing his power as a dramatic actor as the professor, Julianne Moore as his second wife, and Wallace Shawn is the brother-in-law who claims that the professor damaged his life. By not opening up the play, Malle and Mamet lay themselves open to charges of theatricality, but Vanya on 42nd Street is a fascinating film, not so much breaking the forth wall as destroying it, and using the creative process of film-making to bring a classic text to vibrant life.

State and Main 2000 ***


Although his background in theatre has made him something of a guru, David Mamet had enough experience of Hollywood to craft this ingenious, intelligent comedy about the business. He wrote and directed State and Main, which details the making of a fictional film called The Old Mill, with a film-crew descending on a Vermont town for an extremely troubled shoot. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is Walt, the unfortunate writer who finds his words habitually and consistently undermined by the filming process, with Alec Baldwin sending himself up beautifully as Bob, a star with a penchant for teenagers, and there’s accomplished support from William H Macy, Sarah Jessica Parker and David Paymer. There’s a great plot twist involving an elaborate deception, and a super joke about product placement too; Mamet knows his stuff, but is patient enough to craft a sophisticated and comical drama that lets the audience in on the joke.