Movie Review: Mank (2020)


TitleMank
Release Date:November 13, 2020
Director: David Fincher
Production Company:
Netflix International Pictures | Flying Studio | Panic Pictures | Blue Light
Summary/Review:

This biographical drama tells the story of Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a talented screenwriter hired to write the screenplay of Citizen Kane for Orson Welles. Welles sets up Mank in a remote desert rental house so he can write the screenplay while recovering from injuries from a car crash, with the ulterior motive of keeping the alcoholic Mank away from the drink. Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) serves as Mank’s secretary and confidante while John Houseman (Sam Troughton) checks in and frets over Mank’s progress.

The main story alternates with flashbacks to Mank’s memories from the previous decade.  In one storyline he befriends the actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and is drawn in the world of her powerful partner William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).  Another plot focuses on the 1934 California gubernatorial campaign in which Hearst and the Hollywood moguls create propaganda films to smear the social democrat candidate Upton Sinclair.  Mank’s sympathies toward Sinclair puts him at odds with his wealth friends and his Hollywood bosses.

Since Citizen Kane is a satirical attack on Hearst, the conflict in this film is whether Mank should use his personal relationship to inform his writing of the screenplay.  Davies, as portrayed by Seyfried, is sweet, down to earth, and genuinely a friend to Mank, so his work could be seen as a betrayal.  But Mank also has good reasons to continue with the screenplay that will become his best work.

I don’t know how much of this film is “true to life,” although I expect that much of it is embellished. As much as I enjoyed the 62-year-old Oldman’s performance, I think it should be noted that Mank was in his 30s & early 40s when this film take place and actually a year younger than Davies.  I think those casting decisions in historical dramas can really affect our understanding of real life people.  Ultimately the historical accuracy takes a backseat to a personal story of Hollywood politics and one’s willingness to sacrifice personal beliefs.  It’s full of lots of Easter eggs if you know anything about Hollywood history, and is filmed in a style that is a homage to Citizen Kane.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: 12 Years A Slave (2013) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter X

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

As is my practice in the A to Z Challenge, I interpret “X” algebraically, and use it to represent a number.  In this case it is the number “12” from a Best Picture award winning historical drama that is not on these classic movie lists, but probably will be in the future.

Title: 12 Years A Slave 
Release Date: November 8, 2013
Director: Steve McQueen
Production Company: Regency Enterprises | River Road Entertainment | Plan B Entertainment | New Regency Productions | Film4 Productions
Summary/Review:

This film is an historical drama based on the real life experiences of Solomon Northrup who wrote a memoir of his life as an enslaved person that was published in 1853.  Northrup’s narrative and the film capture an aspect of slavery not often discussed in popular history. While most people know that Africans were kidnapped and brought to the Americas to be enslaved and that their descendants were born into slavery, they are less likely to know that free Black people in the United States like Northrup were kidnapped into slavery as well.

In the film we meet Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as a freeborn Black man living in Saratoga, New York with his wife and two children who is a talented performer on the fiddle.  Two con men lure him to Washington on the promise of a job performing music for a circus, but instead they drug him and deliver him to a slave trader. He is then transferred to Louisiana and sold to a man named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is depicted as an enslaver who attempts to be kind but is too weak to do anything that would upend the system.

Later, Northrup is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a sadistic and abusive man.  On Epps plantation, Northrup befriends Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), an young enslaved women who Epps praises for picking the largest amount of cotton. Epps routinely rapes Patsey while his equally disturbed wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) abuses and humiliates her. Nyong’o deservedly won an Best Actress award for this role, but I nonetheless can’t imagine how harrowing it was for her to play this part.

The film dodges some conventions of historical drama by dropping the audience right in the narrative with no narration or titles introducing the situation. The film also makes effective use of flashbacks to Northrup’s  life in New York and earlier days in slavery as he remembers them.  It is also an oddly beautiful film as if to contrast the grim violence of slavery against the natural beauty of a Louisiana plantation.  One scene that is seared in my mind shows Northrup hanging from a noose, just barely able to get his toews on the ground, while in the background other enslaved people go about their work and children play.

The film is unrelenting in its portrayal of violence against Northrup and the other enslaved people depicted in the film.  I’m of two minds on this.  On one hand, no film can even approach the horrors of slavery, and as brutal as this film is, it is only a small approximation of reality.  On the other hand, is there not already enough historical depictions of the torture, rape, and murder of Black people that we don’t need to add to them in 21st Century?  Ultimately, I believe this is a necessary film, but I can understand if some people would not want to view it.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Wolfwalkers (2020) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter W

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

I couldn’t find a “W” movie to watch from these lists so I’m watching a highly-regarded recent release instead.

Title:Wolfwalkers 
Release Date: December 2, 2020
Director: Tomm Moore | Ross Stewart
Production Company: Cartoon Saloon | Mélusine
Summary/Review:

Kilkenny, Ireland – 1650.  The town faces the threat of a pack of wolves outside its walls, and the draconian rule of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney) within.  Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) is an English hunter charged with eliminating the wolf problem while raising and protecting his adventurous young daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey).  Naturally, Robyn makes her way into the forest where she discovers the secret of the wolfwalkers, people who are human when they are awake and wolves when they are asleep, living among the wolfpack.

Robyn befriends the young Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whitaker) and they join together to try and find Mebh’s missing mother and help save the wolf pack.  It’s a wonderful adventure full of great imagination, action, and camaraderie. The animation is absolutely beautiful and effortlessly melds together the historical with the fantastical.  Computer-animated films are getting better and better, but it is also really lovely to see a traditionally animated film like this one again.

Tomm Moore also directed The Secret of Kells which I also loved so now I need to seek out the rest of his films.  In the meantime, I highly recommend this as a great film for the whole family.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter S

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: The Spirit of the Beehive
Release Date: 8 October 1973
Director: Víctor Erice
Production Company: Elías Querejeta Producciones Cinematográficas S.L. | Jacel Desposito
Summary/Review:

Set in a small Castilian village just after the Spanish Civil War, The Spirit of the Beehive is a film that captures the intersection of childhood wonder and fantasy with grim realities.  If that description seems to fit Pan’s Labyrinth as well, then you won’t be surprised that Guillermo del Toro drew inspiration from this film.  Ana (Ana Torrent) is an adorable 6-year-old with a vivid imagination.  Her father (Fernando Fernán Gómez) is a beekeeper and writes extensively about bees.  Her mother (Teresa Gimpera) writes letters to distant lovers.  Neither of them seem to be all to involved in the lives of their children.

The film begins when a traveling movie show brings Frankenstein to the village.  Ana becomes entranced by Frankenstein’s monster, especially the scene when he kills the little girl. Ana’s older sister Isabel (Isabel Tellería) tells her that “Everything in the movies is fake” and that the monster didn’t kill the girl and that in fact he lives in a nearby sheep shed. Ana visits the sheep shed often and finding a wounded republican soldier hiding there, she brings him food and clothing.

The Spirit of the Beehive is set at the beginning of the Franco regime and was released shortly before Franco’s death. Erice gets a lot of credit for telling a story that is critical of Franco through metaphor and thus evading censorship.  But beyond the plot that I’ve summarized here, much of the film is more of a tone poem capturing the everyday wonders and fears of a young child.  It’s beautifully filmed and Ana Torrent’s performance is remarkable.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Ivan the Terrible (1944)



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter I

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Ivan the Terrible
Release Date: December 30, 1944
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Production Company: Mosfilm
Summary/Review: Ivan the Terrible is an odd duck.  It ranks #39 on the Cahiers du Cinéma list and has appeared on past editions of the Sight and Sound list but it was also included in the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (and How They Got That Way). It was directed by the legendary film pioneer Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin), but it was made at the behest of the cruel dictator Joseph Stalin.  Roger Ebert gives the film his top 4-star rating but his review is less enthusiastic and full of caveats.

Like Children of Paradise, this film is an epic historical drama made at a time when the nation was fighting the Nazi threat to all of Europe.  It tells the story of Ivan IV (Nikolay Cherkasov) who as Tsar united disparate fiefdoms under Moscow to create the first Russian empire.  The film begins with Ivan’s coronation in 1547 and a speech in which declares his intentions to bring all of Russia under his control, much to the annoyance of the boyars who were kind of oligarchy of aristocrats used to doing things their own way. Thus the palace intrigue begins.  Ivan marries Anastasia (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya) and they produce an heir, which further enrages the boyars.  War, betrayal, and dramatic death bed scenes ensue.

The performances in the film are very stagey, as if this were some kind of pageant rather than a drama. It is also reminds of  The Scarlet Empress, from the large-scale furnishings and overwhelming shadows to the general over-the-top nature of the performances. While The Scarlet Empress was a Hollywood spectacle about the Russian monarchy, it seems strange that Russian filmmakers would depict their own history in such a campy way.  Eisenstein made a second part to Ivan the Terrible that displeased Stalin so it would not be released until 1958.  A third part was abandoned while in production for the same reason.  So it’s an unfinished epic a lot like Napoléon (except that Ivan actually had military success in Russia).

I suppose I’m supposed to watch both Part 1 & Part 2, but as I didn’t enjoy the first part all too much, and I have 27 movies to watch this April, I’m going to give Part 2 a pass.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter H

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Hiroshima, Mon Amour
Release Date: 10 June 1959
Director: Alain Resnais
Production Company: Argos Films | Como Films |
Daiei Studios | Pathé Entertainment | Pathé Overseas
Summary/Review:

Along with The 400 Blows and Breathless, this movie kickstarted the French New Wave.  Director Alain Resnais previously made the Holocaust documentary Night and Fog, and this movie similarly pulls no punches in using archival footage depicting the horrors of the atomic bomb detonation in Hiroshima.  The better part of the movie though focuses on a non-linear conversation between French Actress Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) and Japanese architect Lui (Eiji Okada) as the have a brief and passionate affair.  Note that their names are French for “Her” and “Him.”

They talk about Hiroshima and the bomb, and they talk about their own experiences during the war (which includes many flashbacks to Elle’s family home in Nevers, France).  The focus of the film is on memories and trying to remember while needing to forget.  It is a bit on the talky side and a bit pretentious as well.  I’m afraid it didn’t hold my attention all that well, but the lead actors are great and I liked the location work and the then innovative “flashes” of memory.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Fanny and Alexander (1982) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter F

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Fanny and Alexander
Release Date: December 17, 1982
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Production Company:  Gaumont
Summary/Review:

I guess I was a budding cinephile at the age of 9 when I started watching Siskel & Ebert’s At The Movies and Leonard Maltin’s movie reviews on Entertainment Tonight.  I like how they always showed extended clips of the movies that they discussed and the highly-regarded movies of the 1982-1983 era stick in my mind even if I’ve never seen them.  It turns out that when finally watching Fanny and Alexander that I actually had watched parts of the movie when randomly flipping channels as a teenager.  So it was good to finally watch the whole thing, or at least the three-hour theatrical cut.

While Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) gets top billing her role is minor, and it is Alexander Ekdahl (Bertil Guve) is the main point-of-view character.  The ten-year old boy whose vivid imagination gets him in trouble represents director Ingmar Bergman’s own child, although this movie is not a straight up autobiography.  For example, the film is set in the first decade of the 1900s, whereas Bergman wasn’t even born until 1918.  Bergman also noted that all the male characters in the film represent an aspect of his own personality.

The basic plot of the film is that the Ekdahl’s are a prosperous and large family who own and run a theatre. The family is introduced at a lavish Christmas party  at the lavish house of Fanny and Alexander’s grandmother Helena (Gunn Wållgren). After their father Oscar (Allan Edwall) suffers a stroke and dies, their mother Emilie (Ewa Fröling) remarries to the Bishop Edvard Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö).  The Bishop is strict and disciplined, and ultimately abusive when Alexander defies him.  Things look bad but this movie takes some weird twists and Alexander, Fanny, and Emilie ultimately end up reunited with their loving family.

While Alexander is central to the movie’s plot, there are a lot of scenes with adult characters where he isn’t involved.  There’s even a major subplot about the children’s exuberant uncle Gustav (Jarl Kulle) having an extramarital affair with their maid Maj (a young Pernilla August, years before she played Shmi Skywalker in The Phantom Menace) with the full knowledge and approval of his adoring wife Alma (Mona Malm).  The large cast includes some highly-regarded Swedish film stars and they all but in a terrific, naturalistic performance.

This movie is gorgeous to look at with bold colors and lots of detail in every shot.  There are three main sets: grandmother Helena’s overstuffed mansion, the austere interiors of the Bishop’s house, and labyrinthine antiques store of Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson), the merchant and Ekdahl family friend who rescues the children.  There is also a lot exteriors shot on location in Uppsala, Sweden.  Of late, I’ve grown fatigued of how many classic films are extremely lengthy and resentful of the pretentiousness of some directors who are not economical in their storytelling.   But Fanny and Alexander is a movie that I want more of and so I will have to find time in the future to watch the full five-and-a-half hour miniseries.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter B

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: The Bridge on the River Kwai
Release Date: October 2, 1957
Director: David Lean
Production Company: Horizon Pictures
Summary/Review:

The Bridge on the River Kwai may be one of the first classic movies I watched and enjoyed as a child. It was either this or The African Queen.  Oddly enough, both movie have in common people traveling down a river to blow something up and leeches.  I watched Kwai numerous times in my youth and into my young adulthood, but I was returning to it after many decades.

The movie, for the most part, part holds up very well.  It has many iconic moments.  The English POWs marching into camp whistling the “Colonel Bogey March” (which I only just learned that during WWII was given parody lyrics and was sung as “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball“), English Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) standing off against the Japanese camp director Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), Nicholson staggering out of the punishment box, and the whole final sequence which I found extremely satisfying after all the build up. William Holden (who keeps appearing in these classic movies) plays the token American who escapes the camp only to return as part of team of commandos, and he represents the audience as the person who recognizes the absurdity of the situation.

When I watched this when I was younger, I took at face value, so watching it this time I really noticed how the movie is deeply satirical, with dark and absurdist humor, and an anti-war movie.  The final word of the film is “Madness!” and the entire film is an examination of madness, or perhaps more accurately, monomaniacal behavior, as exhibited by Nicholson, Saito, and commando leader Major Warden (Jack Hawkins).  What makes this movie work is that in some ways, each of these three “mad” characters does have a good point.  Saito is correct when is says that there are no rules in war.  Nicholson is right that giving the POWs a sense of purpose by building the bridge leads to better morale and health, and Warden is right that they need to destroy the bridge.  The moral quandary is how far they are willing to go to pursue these goals.  The real “madness” is the war itself, which pushes them to the edge.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Andrei Rublev (1966) #AtoZChallenge


#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter A

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Andrei Rublev
Release Date: December 16, 1966
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Production Company: Mosfilm
Summary/Review: This epic film is based on the life of Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn), a monk in Russia in the early 1400s who gained renown for painting icons and other religious art. The film is split into eight parts depicting incidents from different periods of Rublev’s life (as well as a few other incidents that occur during his lifetime). The film is set against the background in-fighting among Russian princes and raids by Tatars. Thus the film depicts the horrors of war, cruelty, and barbarity contrasted with Rublev’s faith and the beauty of art.

The episodes depict Rublev’s transitions from youthful idealism to disillusionment with humanity to ultimately maturing to realize that his art can make a positive contribution to the world. In addition to Rublev’s story, the prologue and final chapter depict two other artistic spirits, a balloon pilot and a bellmaker, each of whom put their lives on the line in faith of their art. I found the movie well-made and well-acted but thought it was far too long and plodding.
Rating: ***

Movie Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)


Title: A Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Release Date: September 18, 2019
Director: Céline Sciamma
Production Company: Lilies Films | Arte | Hold Up Films
Summary/Review:

In 18th-century France, a young artist named Marriane (Noémie Merlant) travels to a remote island in Brittany.  Her commission is to paint a portrait of the aristocrat Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), to be sent as a betrothal gift to a nobleman in Milan. The problem is that Héloïse does not want to pose for the portrait so Marriane must pretend to be her companion and observe her features when she can.

Héloïse mourns the death of her sister and resents having to take her place marrying the nobleman and losing her relative autonomy in a convent.  Marriane has a great amount of independence and outspokenness for a woman of her time and the two begin to bond.  They also spend time with a third major character, the unflappable house maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), and the film as a great number of scenes of women just enjoying one another’s company, something we don’t see too much of in film.

Not to get to spoilery, but it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Marriane and Héloïse’s relationship grows into a romantic one.  They make the best of the time they have and there is also much yearning for more. The acting performances of the three leads are magnificent and the film is gorgeous.

One stand out scene occurs on a beach by a bonfire (the scene that gives the film it’s title) where a group of Breton women we’ve never seen before (and never see again) begin singing and performing as if they were in The Revels.  It’s such a stunning moment in a movie that is largely very quiet with very few characters on screen.

Rating:  ****