Category Archives: Movie Movie

Tribeca 2022: The Wild One ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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Tessa Louise-Salomé directs this biography of theater and film director Jack Garfein. A Czechoslovakian-born Holocaust survivor, Garfein (who passed away in 2019) only directed two feature films, The Strange One (1957) and Walk on the Wild Side (1961); but each was notable for tackling then-taboo issues (homosexuality in the former and rape in the latter). Garfein tells his own story, with a wealth of archival clips and photographs woven throughout.

Most affecting are his recollections of the concentration camps, and how this harrowing experience informed his work as an artist. He also recalls his longtime marriage to actress Carroll Baker (which I was previously unaware of) and his involvement with The Actor’s Studio in New York (he later moved to Hollywood and co-founded Actors Studio West). An engrossing and intimate portrait.

Dirty movies: A Top X List

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 4, 2022)

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(Now that I have your attention) 54 years ago, Hollywood submitted to a new voluntary film rating system developed by the Motion Picture Association of America. Films were classified based on their “suitability” for young viewers: ‘G’ for general audiences, ‘M’ for mature audiences, ‘R’ for no one under 16 admitted without a parent or guardian (later raised to 17), and an ‘X’ indicated no one under 17 would be admitted.

It’s interesting that these guidelines (the brainchild of then-association head Jack Valenti, who had resigned his special assistant post with LBJ’s White House two years earlier to take the job) were devised on the cusp of a liberated and boldly creative period of American film-making; one that ushered in the golden era of the 1970s “mavericks” (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, John Cassavetes, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman, Terrence Malick, Peter Bogdanovich, and Bob Rafelson, to name a few).

Early on, a fair number of adult-themed Hollywood releases, as well as foreign films distributed here, were slapped with an ‘X’ for “explicit” content. By the mid-70s, the MPAA was reserving most of its X’s for straight-up porn, which due to crossover success of films like Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door and The Devil in Miss Jones had broken free of the underground to enjoy wider distribution and more public interest. This loosened the reins a bit as to what defined “X-rated” in a mainstream Hollywood release.

By the early 80s, you could count the annual number of ‘X’ certifications for mainstream releases on one hand, and by the end of the decade, a newly modified system was set in place. ‘M’ eventually morphed into ‘PG-13’, ‘R’ pretty much stayed the course, and ‘X’ became ‘NC-17’ (no one under 17 admitted). Then there is the sometimes confounding ‘NR’ (not rated) which indicates either a film that has not yet been submitted for a rating, or that it is an uncut version of a film that’s already been submitted. Get it? Got it? Good.

The current iteration of the MPAA ratings system (G, PG, PG-13, R, & NC-17) has been in place since 1990, with sporadic additions of content qualifiers (e.g. “violence”, “language”, “substance abuse”, “nudity”, “sexual content”, and since 2007, “smoking”). The intent of these qualifiers (one assumes) is to help parents make informed decisions.

But is there a limit? One has to wonder if there is a point at which such guidelines become so finicky and specific that they cross the fine line between self-policing and creative suppression (e.g. to this day, an ‘NC-17’ rating is considered box office poison by studio execs, which sometimes puts pressure on the filmmakers to compromise their original vision and re-cut for a more fiscally viable ‘R’). Or perhaps it’s a question of whether the MPAA has remained in lockstep with changing mores. In 1990, which was the year ‘NC-17’ ostensibly became the new ‘X’ (and all it implies) Roger Ebert wrote:

As a category, I think [the “NC-17” rating] may not have entirely solved the problem. The title “NC-17” is so innocuous that it is unlikely to develop the kinds of lurid associations that X had. […] NC-17 is low profile and places the emphasis not on adult content but simply on the fact that such movies are not intended for children. […]

Ratings reformers such as myself thought the new rating should come between the R and the X, instead of replacing the X. That way, you’d have a clear-cut category for movies that were adult in content but did not deserve to be lumped with hard-core. […]

Just as some directors get the right of final cut on their movies and others do not, some directors may be able to float NC-17 projects and others will not. Much will depend on how the rating is accepted in the marketplace. […]

Strangely, sex itself is no longer considered a strong selling point in the movie industry, and even R-rated movies are not as sexy as they used to be. Today’s audiences seem to prefer action and violence. There may be a lesson there somewhere.

20 years later, in a Chicago Tribune piece, film critic Michael Philips didn’t hold back:

I’ve had it with the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings and classifications board. It has become foolish and irrelevant, and its members do not have my interests at heart, or yours. They’re too easy on violence yet bizarrely reactionary when it comes to nudity and language. Especially language. […]

In 1976 “All the President’s Men” won a PG rating on appeal, despite its 11 uses of the f-word. That was a lifetime ago in pop culture terms. More recently the documentaries “The Hip-Hop Project” (17 uses of the f-word and its multifaceted variations) and “Gunner Palace” (42 f-words) secured PG-13 ratings. Even more recently a politically pointed (and very good) documentary, “The Tillman Story,” had 16 uses of the f-word, yet its makers’ appeal for a PG-13 rating was denied.

Here’s the paradox among these inconsistencies: Context and tone, those purely subjective notions, are routinely ignored by the MPAA’s ratings decisions. […]

I don’t care if MPAA head Graves frets about perceived language sensitivities in the South and the Midwest compared to the coasts, which amounts to a generalization even the coasts might find patronizing. I do care about the increasing coarseness and sadism in our mass entertainment. I care about the messages the American movie rating system sends to all of us.

If “The King’s Speech” and “Saw 3D” warrant the same rating, then the system underneath leaves me speechless.

Or, as Jack Nicholson once famously (or infamously) put it (albeit in a more succinct and less film-scholarly fashion). “If you suck on a [breast] the movie gets an ‘R’ rating. If you hack the [breast] off with an axe, it will be a ‘PG’.”

The MPAA doesn’t see a scintilla of a hint of even the tiniest most infinitesimal possibility that their ratings system smacks of censorship. From the MPAA 2018 report:

The MPAA has resisted government censorship since its early days, and the rating system was developed as a voluntary, industry-led alternative to government censorship boards. The focus on providing information to parents about what’s in a film, rather than dictating what can and cannot go into films, serves the dual purpose of providing information to parents to help them make suitable viewing choices for their children and protecting the free speech rights of filmmakers from government intervention. […]

Filmmakers are free to put whatever content they want into their films. The rating board reviews each film on a case-by-case basis and reacts just as parents would, assigning a rating that corresponds with the level of content in each film. The rating board does not take into account the artistic merit of the films it rates. A rating is not a judgment of whether a film is good or bad.

 Fair enough (and you’ll note that I have steered clear of the “c” word until now). But what about “context and tone”, as Michael Philips pointed out in his piece? If members of the board are in fact ignoring those factors (as Philips implies) …doesn’t that make its decisions arbitrary, therefore a form of censorship? Most importantly, who ARE these folks who judge what your kids should or shouldn’t see? From the same MPAA report:

The rating board is comprised of eight to 13 raters who are themselves parents. Raters must have children between the ages of five and 15 when they join the rating board and must leave when all of their children have reached the age of twenty-one. Raters can serve for up to seven years, at the discretion of the Chair. With the exception of the senior raters, the identities of raters are kept confidential to avoid outside pressure or influence.

Look on the bright side. At least it isn’t a lifetime appointment, like the Supreme Court.

Anyway, in this 54th anniversary year of the MPAA ratings system we all either love or loathe, I thought it would be fun to mosey over to the media room and curate a top 10 collection of vintage ‘X’-rated movies that may not seem quite so ‘X-rated’ by today’s standards. That said, I strongly caution parents that none of these should be considered “family-friendly”!

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Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – In spite of the title, Russ Meyer’s campy, over-the-top 1970 backstage satire has little in common with Valley of the Dolls (1967). For one thing, the 1967 film had something resembling a coherent narrative. But if you’re familiar with the Russ Meyer oeuvre, you know that “story” is an afterthought. Meyer’s brand was more synonymous with a bevy of buxom babes who beckoned from lurid movie posters; we’ll just say he had a fetish for certain attributes in his leading ladies and leave it there.

It’s not difficult to glean how this entry has built a sizable cult audience over the decades. An all-female band (“The Carrie Nations”) makes the time-honored trek to La-La Land to become rock ‘n’ roll stars. They do make it “big”, but along the way, there’s enough back-stabbing, drug-taking, lovemaking, and heartbreaking to circle the Earth three times.

Roger Ebert (yes, the late film critic) co-wrote with Meyer. There are some memorable lines, like “You’re a groovy boy. I’d like to strap you on sometime” and “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” Ebert also co-wrote Meyer’s 1979 tongue-in-cheek sexploitation cheapie Beyond the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (wisely using a pseudonym).

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A Clockwork Orange –A nightmarish vision of a dystopian England in the near-future. Malcolm McDowell leads an excellent cast as “Alex”, a charismatic psychopath who leads an ultra-violent youth gang. Alex and his “droogs” get their jollies terrorizing the citizenry and mixing it up with rivals. Alex ends up in prison, where he volunteers as a test subject for an experimental “cure” for antisocial behavior. After completing the program, a now docile Alex is let back into society, only to suffer much karmic payback.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ eponymous novel still lives up to its “ultra”-violent reputation, but one hopes that its intended anti-violence message is more obvious to modern audiences (who may also puzzle over its ‘X’-rating). Like many of Kubrick’s films, A Clockwork Orange becomes more prescient by the day. Watching the nightly news will tell you that we are currently living in the “dystopian near-future”.

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The Groove Tube – While many of its pop culture references are now arcane, Ken Shapiro’s 1974 omnibus of irreverent comedy sketches still tickles the funny bone. Loosely framed as a programming sampler from an imagined TV channel, Shapiro and his most *definitely* not ready for prime-time players utilize this platform to skewer sitcoms, talk shows, local newscasts and commercials.

It’s lewd, crude, and guaranteed to offend just about everybody (especially now…oy), but in the fullness of time it’s been acknowledged as a tangible influence on Saturday Night Live (which went on the air the following year). Chevy Chase appears in several sketches, and even more tellingly, a news anchorman character signs off with “Good night…and have a pleasant tomorrow”, which later became a signature SNL catchphrase.

Not for all tastes, but I think it’s a hoot. I should note that while contemporary DVD and Blu-ray reissues indicate an ‘R’ rating, the film was originally released as ‘X’ -rated due to male and female frontal nudity.

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Henry and June – Fred Ward (who passed away in May of this year) delivers one of his finest performances portraying gruff, libidinous literary icon Henry Miller. Writer-director Philip Kaufman’s 1990 drama is set in 1930s Paris, when Miller was working on his infamous novel Tropic of Cancer. The film concentrates on the complicated love triangle between Miller, his wife June (Uma Thurman) and erotic novelist Anais Nin (Maria de Medeiros).

Despite the frequent nudity and eroticism, the film is curiously un-sexy, but still a well-acted character study. Richard E. Grant portrays Nin’s husband. Adapted from Nin’s writings. For better or for worse, the film holds the distinction of being the first recipient of the MPAA’s “NC-17” rating.

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If…. – In this 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson depicts the British public-school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time. It was also the star-making debut for a young Malcolm McDowall, who plays Mick Travis, one of the “lower sixth form” students at a boarding school (McDowall would return as the Travis character in Anderson’s two loose “sequels” O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). Travis forms the nucleus of a trio of mates who foment armed insurrection against the abusive upperclassmen and oppressive headmasters.

Some critical reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film really has little to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (the uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). That said, you can see how Anderson’s film could be read outside of original context as a pre-cursor to Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, Heathers, The Chocolate War and Rushmore. David Sherwin and John Howlett co-wrote the screenplay.

The film was eventually granted an ‘R’ but ran with an ‘X’ rating for its initial theatrical engagements in the U.S. (male and female frontal nudity).

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Inserts –If I told you that Richard Dreyfuss, Veronica Cartwright, Bob Hoskins and Jessica Harper once co-starred in an X-rated movie, would you believe me? This largely forgotten 1976 film from director John Byrum was dismissed as pretentious dreck by critics at the time, but 46 years on, it begs reappraisal as a fascinating curio in the careers of all involved.

Dreyfuss plays “Wonder Boy”, a Hollywood whiz kid director who peaked early; now he’s a “has-been”, living in his bathrobe, drinking heavily and casting junkies and wannabe-starlets for pornos produced on the cheap in his crumbling mansion. Hoskins steals all his scenes as Wonder Boy’s producer, Big Mac (aptly named; as he has plans to open a chain of hamburger joints!). Set in 30s Hollywood, this decadent wallow in the squalid side of show biz is a perfect companion for The Day of the Locust.

While I wouldn’t consider the sex scenes in the film overly explicit (especially compared to what you now routinely encounter in any HBO or Showtime original series), my DVD copy (released in 2005 by MGM) indicates it earns contemporary assignation of ‘NC-17’.

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Last Summer – This underrated 1969 gem (later re-cut to earn an R rating) is from husband-and-wife team Frank Perry (director) and Eleanor Perry (writer). Adapted from Evan Hunter’s novel, it is tough to summarize without possible spoilers.

Initially, it’s a standard character study about three friends on the cusp of adulthood (Bruce Davison, Barbara Hershey and Richard Thomas) who develop a Jules and Jim-style relationship during an idyllic summer vacation on Fire Island. When a socially awkward stranger (Catherine Burns) enters this simmering cauldron of raging hormones and burgeoning sexuality, the lid blows off the pressure cooker, leading to unexpected twists. Think Summer of ’42 meets Lord of the Flies; I’ll leave it there. Beautifully acted and directed. By the way, if you’re a fan of the Netflix series Ozark, keep your eyes peeled for Davison and Thomas, who both give great supporting performances in the latest season (although they don’t have any scenes together).

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Last Tango in Paris –Bernardo Bertolucci’s dark and polarizing 1972-character study about a doomed affair between a middle-aged American ex-pat (Marlon Brando) and a young Parisian woman (Maria Schneider) sparked controversy with audiences, critics and censors from day one (although by today’s standards, it seems much ado about nothing).

Brando is grieving over the suicide of his wife; he and Schneider meet by pure chance when they both show up at the same time to view an apartment for rent. Minimal exposition leads to wild, spontaneous sex between the two strangers.

Whether the ensuing psychodrama makes a bold statement about life, death, social isolation, and the unfathomable mystery of sexual attraction, or plunges the hapless viewer into 2 long hours of histrionics, navel-gazing, and pretentious blather is up to you. Now that I’m older (and presumably wiser) I’ve come to appreciate Brando’s performance more that I did back in the day; there is a raw, unfiltered honesty and vulnerability I never saw in his other roles.

Medium Cool – What Haskell Wexler’s unique 1969 drama may lack in narrative cohesion is more than made up for by its importance as a sociopolitical document. Robert Forster stars as a TV news cameraman who is fired after he complains to station brass about their willingness to help the FBI build files on political agitators via access to raw news film footage and reporter’s notes.

He drifts into a relationship with a Vietnam War widow (Verna Bloom) and her 12-year-old son. They eventually find themselves embroiled in the mayhem surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention (in the film’s most memorable scene, the actors were sent in to improvise amidst one of the infamous “police riots” as it was happening). Many of the issues Wexler touches on (especially regarding media integrity and journalistic responsibility) would be extrapolated further in films like Network and Broadcast News.

The film was originally rated ‘X’; however, Paramount later appealed the ruling. In 1970 the MPAA overturned its initial ruling and granted the film an ‘R’ rating (with no cuts).

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Midnight Cowboy – Aside from its distinction as being the only X-rated film to ever win Oscars, John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking character study also helped usher in a new era of mature, gritty neo-realism in American film that would reach its apex in 1976 with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (one year before Star Wars ushered that era to a full dead stop).

Dustin Hoffman has seldom matched his character work here as the Fagin-esque Ratso Rizzo, a homeless New York City con artist who adopts country bumpkin/aspiring male hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) as his “protégé”. The two leads are outstanding, as is the supporting cast, which includes John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Barnard Hughes and a teenage Bob Balaban. Also look for cameos from several of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” regulars, who can be spotted milling about here and there in a memorable party scene.

In hindsight, the location filming provides a fascinating historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square (New York “plays itself” very well here). Schlesinger won an Oscar for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.

SIFF 2022: Only in Theaters (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2022)

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If you’ve ever fallen in love with a neighborhood art house, you’ll love Raphael Sbarge’s doc, which examines the history of a venerable LA-based theater chain that has been run by the Laemmle family for 84 years. A nice blend of great archival footage with observations by family members and admirers like Leonard Maltin, Ava DuVernay, Cameron Crowe, and James Ivory. It reminded me of the 2004 doc Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession. Unexpectedly moving.

Pre-Oscar marathon: Top 10 Movies about the Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 26, 2022)

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I felt it apropos on this Oscar Eve to honor Hollywood’s annual declaration of its deep and abiding love for itself with my picks for the top 10 movies about…the movies. Action!

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Cinema Paradiso Writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 love letter to the cinema may be too sappy for some, but for those of us who (to quote Pauline Kael) “lost it at the movies” it’s chicken soup for the soul. A film director (Jacques Perrin) returns to his home town in Sicily for a funeral, triggering flashbacks from his youth. He reassesses the relationships with two key people in his life: his first love, and the person who instilled his life-long love of the movies. Beautifully acted and directed; keep the Kleenex handy.

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Day for Night– French film scholar and director Francois Truffaut was, first and foremost, a movie fan. And while one could argue that many of his own movies are rife with homage to the filmmakers who inspired him, this 1973 entry is his most heartfelt declaration of love for the medium (as well as his most-imitated work). Truffaut casts himself as (wait for it) a director in the midst of a production called Meet Pamela.

“Pamela” is a beautiful but unstable British actress (Jacqueline Bisset) who is gingerly stepping back into the spotlight after a highly publicized breakdown. The petulant, emotionally immature leading man (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is a fool for love, which constantly distracts him from his work. Truffaut also has to coddle an aging Italian movie queen (Valentia Cortese) who is showing up on set three sheets to the wind and flubbing scenes.

Truffaut cleverly mirrors the backstage travails of his cast and crew with those of the characters in the “film-within-the-film”. Somehow, it all manages to fall together…but getting there is half the fun. Truffaut parlays a sense of what a director “does” (in case you were wondering) and how a good one can coax magic from seemingly inextricable chaos.

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Ed Wood– Director Tim Burton and leading man Johnny Depp have worked together on so many films over the last 30 years that they must be joined at the hip. For my money, this affectionate 1994 biopic about the man who directed “the worst film of all time” remains their best collaboration. It’s also unique in Burton’s canon in that it is somewhat grounded in reality (while I wish his legion of loyal fans all the best, Burton’s predilection for overly-precious phantasmagorical and macabre fare is an acquired taste that I’ve yet to acquire).

Depp gives a brilliant performance as Edward D. Wood, Jr., who unleashed the infamously inept yet 100% certified camp classic, Plan 9 from Outer Space on an unsuspecting movie-going public back in the late 1950s. While there are lots of belly laughs, none of them are at the expense of the off-beat characters. There’s no mean-spiritedness here; that’s what makes the film so endearing. Martin Landau delivers a droll Oscar-winning turn as Bela Lugosi. Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette and Jeffrey Jones also shine.

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8 1/2– Where does creative inspiration come from? It’s a simple question, but one of the most difficult to answer. Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical 1963 classic probably comes closest to “showing” us…in his inimitable fashion. Marcello Mastroianni is fabulous as a successful director who wrestles with a creative block whilst being hounded by the press and various hangers-on. Like many Fellini films (all Fellini films?), the deeper you go, the less you comprehend. Yet (almost perversely), you can’t take your eyes off the screen; with Fellini, there is an implied contract between the director and the viewer that, no matter what ensues, if you’ve bought the ticket, you have to take the ride.

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Hearts of the West– In Howard Zeiff’s 1975 dramedy, Jeff Bridges stars as a Depression-era wannabe pulp western writer (a scene where he asks the barber to cut his hair to make him look “just like Zane Grey” is priceless.) He gets fleeced by a mail-order scam promising enrollment in what turns out to be a bogus university “out West”. Serendipity lands him a job as a Hollywood stuntman. Bridges gets able support from Blythe Danner, Andy Griffith (one of his best performances), Donald Pleasence, Richard B. Shull, and veteran scene-stealer Alan Arkin (he’s a riot as a perpetually apoplectic director). Rob Thompson’s witty script gives the wonderful cast plenty to chew on.

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The Kid Stays in the Picture– Look up “raconteur” in the dictionary and you might see a picture of the subject of this winning 2002 documentary, directed by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen. While essentially a 90-minute monologue by legendary producer Robert Evans (The Godfather, Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, Chinatown, etc.) recounting his life and career, it’s an intimate and fascinating “insider” purview of the Hollywood machine. Evans spins quite the tale of a mogul’s rise and fall; by turns heartbreaking and hilarious. He’s so charming and entertaining that you won’t stop to ponder whether he’s making half this shit up. Inventive, engaging, and required viewing for movie buffs.

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Living in Oblivion– This under-appreciated 1995 sleeper from writer-director Tom DiCillo is the Day for Night of indie cinema. A NYC-based filmmaker (Steve Buscemi) is directing a no-budget feature. Much to his chagrin, the harried director seems to be stuck in a hellish loop as he chases an ever-elusive “perfect take” for a couple of crucial scenes.

DiCillo’s cleverly constructed screenplay is quite funny. Fabulous performances abound from a “Who’s Who” of indie film: Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, Kevin Corrigan, James Le Gros and Peter Dinklage (in his first billed film role). Dinklage delivers a hilarious rant about the stereotypical casting of dwarves in dream sequences. It has been rumored that Le Gros’ character (an arrogant Hollywood hotshot who has deigned to grace the production with his presence) was based on the director’s experience working with Brad Pitt (who starred in DeCillo’s 1991 debut , Johnny Suede). If true, all I can say is…ouch!

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The Story of Film: An Odyssey is one long-ass movie. Consider the title. It literally is the story of film, from the 1890s through last Tuesday. At 15 hours, it is nearly as epic an undertaking for the viewer as it must have been for director-writer-narrator Mark Cousins. Originally aired as a TV series in the UK, it played on the festival circuit as a five-part presentation. While the usual suspects are well-represented, Cousins’ choices for in-depth analysis are atypical (e.g. African and Middle-Eastern cinema).

That quirkiness is what I found most appealing about this idiosyncratic opus; world cinema (rightfully) gets equal time with Hollywood. The film is not without tics. Cousins’ oddly cadenced Irish brogue takes acclimation, and he tends to over-use the word “masterpiece”. Of course, he “left out” many directors and films I would have included. Nits aside, this is obviously a labor of love by someone who is sincerely passionate about film.

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The Stunt Man– “How tall was King Kong?” That’s the $64,000 question, posed by Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), the larger-than-life director of the film-within-the-film in Richard Rush’s 1980 drama. Once you discover that King Kong was but “3 foot, six inches tall”, it becomes clear that the fictional director’s query is actually code for a much bigger question: “What is reality?”

That is the question to ponder as you take this wild ride through the Dream Factory. Because from the moment our protagonist, a fugitive on the run from the cops (Steve Railsback) tumbles ass over teakettle onto Mr. Cross’s set, where he is in the midst of filming an art-house flavored WW I action adventure, his (and the audience’s) concept of what is real and what isn’t becomes hazy, to say the least.

O’Toole chews major scenery, ably supported by a cast that includes Barbara Hershey and Allen Garfield. Despite the lukewarm reviews from critics upon original release, it has since gained status as a cult classic. This is a movie for people who love the movies.

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Sunset Boulevard– Leave it to that great ironist Billy Wilder to direct a film that garnered a Best Picture nomination from the very Hollywood studio system it so mercilessly skewers (however, you’ll note that they didn’t let him win…did they?). Gloria Swanson’s turn as a fading, high-maintenance movie queen mesmerizes, William Holden embodies the quintessential noir sap, and veteran scene-stealer Erich von Stroheim redefines the meaning of “droll” in this tragicomic journey down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

Blu-ray reissue: Modern Romance (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 18, 2021)

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Modern Romance (Powerhouse Films/Indicator)

In his best romantic comedy (co-written by frequent collaborator Monica Johnson), writer-director Albert Brooks (the godfather of “cringe” comedy) casts himself as a film editor at American International Pictures. His obsessive-compulsiveness makes him great at his job, but a pain-in-the-ass to his devoted girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold), who is exasperated with his history of impulsively breaking up with her one day, only to beg her to take him back the next.

There are many inspired scenes, particularly where a depressed Brooks takes Quaaludes and drunk dials every woman he’s ever dated (like Bob Newhart, Brooks is a master of “the phone bit”). Another great scene features Brooks and his assistant editor (the late Bruno Kirby) laying down Foley tracks in the post-production sessions for a cheesy sci-fi movie.

Brooks’ brother, the late Bob Einstein (aka “Super Dave”, and a regular on Curb Your Enthusiasm) has a wry cameo as a sportswear clerk. Also with George Kennedy (as “himself”) and real-life film director James L. Brooks (no relation) playing Brooks’ boss.

Indicator’s 2021 edition sports a sparkling transfer, an entertaining and insightful commentary track by critic/film historian Nick Pinkerton, and a 15 minute featurette from 2018 with cinematographer Eric Saarienen discussing his collaborations with Brooks.

Life through a lens: What We Left Unfinished (**½) & Whirlybird (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 7, 2021)

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Considering recent developments in Afghanistan, the release of Mariam Ghani’s documentary What We Left Unfinished may prove to be timelier than the director intended. Her film offers a behind-the-scenes look at the Kabul-based Afghan film industry, and how it fared during the multi-regime Communist era (from 1978 to 1991).

While it may seem counter-intuitive to consider a 13 year-long period of Communist rule as “the good old days”, the filmmakers who are profiled here view it as a golden age (of sorts)…especially relative to the subsequent years of Taliban rule from 1992 to 2001.

If there was an “up” side to the implementation of the Soviet model during that period, it was state funding of movies. Of course there was a substantial “down” side for filmmakers, in that they did not get final cut…every master print was subject to approval (read: butchering) by government censors before distribution.  Those willing to put up with caveats found they had an otherwise surprising amount of resources at their disposal.

Ghani uses restored footage from five unfinished projects to give a sampling of the types of films that were produced during that period. For the most part, they are standard melodramas; and while they contain elements reflecting Afghanistan’s historical turbulence and nods to Communist doctrine, none of them struck me as overtly political.

Ghani enlists writers, actors, producers and directors to reflect on how they finagled to keep the film industry alive during this period, despite the frequent regime changes (sometimes governmental shifts would occur mid-production, which could get awkward).

Some of the filmmakers’ stories are pretty wild. One recalls staging a battle scene in the desert wherein they had to use real bullets (the army provided them with weapons for the film, but didn’t have any blanks). When he called “cut”, he heard additional gunfire and quickly realized that actors and crew were being shot at by a small band of mujahedin, who had been drawn by the sound of their gunfire. They were eventually able to escape.

If you’re looking for the big picture-at 70 minutes Ghani’s film cannot convey the full complexity of Afghan art and politics; but as film preservation it has historical value. It’s not for all tastes, but I think diehard fans of international cinema should find it intriguing.

WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED is in select theaters and virtual cinemas nationwide.

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I love it. Suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hitmen, automobile smash-ups: “The Death Hour”. A great Sunday night show for the whole family.

-from Network, screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

Talk about helicopter parenting. Matt Yoda’s documentary Whirlybird is one of those “only in L.A.” stories; specifically the story of the Tur family…broadcast reporter Zoe (formerly Bob), her ex-wife/long-time professional colleague Marika Gerrard, and their two children James and Katy.

It’s tough to pigeonhole a film that runs the gamut from shocking footage of the 1992 L.A. riots and the infamous O.J. Simpson Bronco chase to home movies of a happy mom-to-be carrying future NBC News correspondent Katy Tur. The best I can do for you is “Keeping up with the Kardashians meets Broadcast News.”

Although the “action news” format was established in the 70s, one can credit (or blame) news stringer/helicopter pilot Bob Tur (who transitioned to Zoe in 2014) and then-wife and camera operator Marika Gerrard with popularizing the sensationalist, God’s-eye iteration of “breaking news”…reporting from high aloft the murder and mayhem below.

Tur founded the independent Los Angeles News Service in the 80s, initially running his own camera in addition to doing the reporting. As Marika recalls, it wasn’t too long after she and Tur began courting that he encouraged her to learn how to shoot news footage. More often than not, “date nights” ended up with her tagging along with him to a crime scene, fire, or a car crash anyway, so Marika figured out early on that if she wanted time with Bob, her best bet was to take him up on his offer to be a professional partner as well.

Even once the couple began to build their family, the police scanner remained the soundtrack of their lives. Zoe recalls “driving 110 miles an hour” to get the jump on a breaking story…with her wife and kids in the car.

If that sounds like reckless behavior, Zoe would agree with you. While sheepish about speaking of herself in the third person, she now realizes “Bob” had an overabundance of testosterone. Bob also had anger management issues, as evidenced in outtakes of him berating both Marika and helicopter pilot Lawrence Welk III (I was reminded of the 2010 documentary Winnebago Man).

Nonetheless, the reportage that Tur and Gerrard did over the years adds up to an extraordinary documentation of key historical events in Los Angeles from the late 1980s through the late 1990s “as they happened” (e.g. that is Bob Tur’s voice you hear accompanying that horrific, now-iconic footage of truck driver Reginald Denny being beaten nearly to his death on live television).

The director was given access to the couple’s archive of several thousand Beta tapes. As he plowed through the library, Yoda noticed that there was quite a bit of family footage mixed in among the plane crashes, riots, and police pursuits (Bob and Marika used the work camera for their home movies).

The couple’s marriage ended in 2003; Yoda interweaves family footage with career highlights to create a dual chronology of a city descending into chaos and a relationship becoming increasingly untenable. It’s not necessarily “a great Sunday night show for the whole family”…but it’s an absorbing watch and one of the top docs I have seen this year.

WHIRLYBIRD is streaming on Amazon Prime, Google Play, and other platforms.

Tribeca 2021: The Last Film Show (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2021)

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Child actor Bhavin Rabari gives an extraordinary performance in writer-director Pan Nalin’s moving drama. Set in contemporary India in 2010, the story centers on Samay, a cinema-obsessed 9-year-old boy who lives with his parents and younger sister. He is frequently beaten by his father, who is embittered by having to support his family as a railway station “tea boy” after losing his cattle farm. He forbids Samay to watch movies unless they are “religious” in nature.

This of course drives Samay to play hooky from school and sneak into the local theater whenever possible. Eventually he befriends the projectionist, who takes Samay on as a kind of protégé, in exchange for the delicious school lunches that Samay’s mother packs for him.

There are obvious parallels with Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, but Nalin puts his own unique stamp on a familiar narrative. Gorgeously photographed and beautifully acted, this is a colorful and poetic love letter to the movies.

Tribeca 2021: Kubrick by Kubrick (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2021)

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For those unfamiliar with Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre, a cursory glance at the director’s catalog (13 movies over a 46-year span) might prompt head-scratching as to all the fuss concerning his impact on the medium. But great artists are defined by the quality, not the quantity of their work. Kubrick was notoriously averse to granting interviews, so it has been largely left up to film scholars to mull over the ultimate “meaning” of 2001: a Space Odyssey or Eyes Wide Shut.

Writer-director Gregory Monro had access to rare audio-only interviews Kubrick granted to French film critic Michael Ciment over a 10-year period. He cleverly incorporates Kubrickian visual language, rounded off by archival interviews with creative collaborators. Not a definitive portrait of the artist, but likely the closest we will ever get to Kubrick “in his own words”.

Babylon Berlin: Enfant Terrible (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 15, 2021)

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“It isn’t easy to accept that suffering can also be beautiful… it’s difficult. It’s something you can only understand if you dig deeply into yourself.”

― Rainer Werner Fassbinder

An oft-quoted Chinese philosopher once proffered “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long”. He could have been prophesying the short yet productive life of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Over a 15-year period ending with his death in 1982 at age 37, the German playwright, director, screenwriter, actor, producer, editor, cameraman, composer, designer, etc. churned out 40+ feature films, a couple dozen stage plays , two TV mini-series, and various video productions, radio plays and shorts.

As illustrated in a new biopic, he also snorted lots of coke, cruised a lot of rough trade, threw a lot of tantrums, and generally treated friends, lovers, and actors (frequently all one and the same) like shit. It could be argued he didn’t suffer for his art, so much as make those around him suffer for it. He was “the bad boy” of New German Cinema.

Hence the title of Oskar Roehler’s fitfully inspired Enfant Terrible, which is propelled by Oliver Masucci’s scenery-chewing turn as Fassbinder (a performance that vacillates between Bruno Ganz as Hitler in Downfall and John Belushi as Bluto in Animal House).

After several years of rushed, provocative and audience-alienating theater productions, Fassbinder declares to his long-suffering collaborator Kurt Raab (Hary Prinz) “Wherever you go is material that is about how people see their dreams and how their dreams get destroyed. The theater can’t do it. Only cinema can do it.” This launches a torrent of rushed, provocative and audience-alienating films.

Eventually critics and audiences warm to Fassbinder’s work, starting with his internationally acclaimed 1974 drama Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. The narrative thread about Fassbinder’s relationship with leading man El Hedi ben Salem (Erdal Yildiz) provides Enfant Terrible with an emotional core it otherwise lacks (as nihilism  runs through much of Fassbinder’s work, perhaps it is intended to reflect the artist himself).

Roehler cannily replicates the aesthetic of Fassbinder’s films; bold colors, the cinematography (by Carl-Friedrich Koschnick), production design (done by Roehler himself), self-consciously theatrical sets, and the use of doorways and windows to create multiple frames within the camera frame indicates that he did his homework.

Using metatheatre, Roehler and co-writer Klaus Richter draw parallels between snippets of Fassbinder cruelly manipulating actors on set and vignettes depicting his tortured personal life, but it becomes repetitive. It’s a shame they didn’t take a deeper dive into Fassbinder’s creative vision; what you’re left with is a highlight reel of his filmography sandwiched between yet another sad study in willful self-destruction.

(“Enfant Terrible” is now playing in select physical and virtual cinemas)

Paging Upton Sinclair: Mank (***½) & Martin Eden (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 16, 2021)

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Herman J. Mankiewicz: Irving [Thalberg], you are a literate man. You know the difference between communism and socialism. In socialism, everyone shares the wealth. In communism, everyone shares the poverty. […]

Mankiewicz [In a later scene, referring to his dinner host William Randolph Hearst] …he’s EXACTLY what our Don used to be! An idealist, ya get it? And not only that, his nemesis [gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair] is the same guy who once predicted that our Quixote would one day preside over a socialist revolution. Our Quixote looks into the mirror of his youth and decides to break this glass, a maddening reminder of who he once was. [Pointing at fellow dinner guest Louis B. Mayer] Assisted by his faithful Sancho.

from Mank, screenplay by Jack Fincher

Russ Brissenden: I’m warning you, Martin…don’t waste time. How many people do you see starve to death or go to jail because they are nothing else but wretches, stupid and ignorant slaves? Fight for them, Martin. Fight for socialism.

Martin Eden: You and I have nothing to do with socialists! Yet you insist on spending time with them!

Russ Brissenden: Socialism is inevitable. The slaves have now become too many. Anything is preferable to the pigs that govern now. Socialism will give a sense to your writing, Martin. It might be the only thing that will save you from the disappointment that’s approaching.

Martin Eden: What disappointment? [End scene]

– from Martin Eden, screenplay by Maurizio Brariucci & Pietro Marcello

It is tempting to suggest that, aside from the fact that David Fincher’s Mank and Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden are films about writers (the former a real-life figure and the latter a fictional character), they are also both “about” socialism. But they are not really, at least not in any didactic way. I will venture to suggest that they do merge in a tangential way, with a minor fender-bender at the intersection of Jack London and Upton Sinclair.

I came to this ‘epiphany’ in my usual bumbling fashion. Being a lazy bastard, I have been putting off writing a review of Mank (which has been available on Netflix since early December). This time of year, less screener links come my way than usual (even publicists need a holiday break, I suppose), so with nothing new to cover this week I went for the low-hanging fruit, planning to devote this post to Mank. Murphy’s Law being what it is, I was offered a crack at Martin Eden, a film I had already been intrigued to see.

Martin Eden is based on Jack London’s eponymous novel. I admit I have never read it, which may have worked in my favor, as I went into it with no expectations and an open mind. Good thing too, as I gather that some London purists are upset that the director and co-writer Maurizio Braucci transposed a tale originally set in early 1900s America to an unspecified (mid to latter?) 20th-Century period in Italy, chockablock with anachronisms.

When we are introduced to the strapping Martin (Luca Marinelli) he’s a drunken sailor pulling an all-night pub crawl, boning and grogging his way down the waterfront and sleeping it off al fresco. When he awakens, he espies a slightly built young man getting bullied by a goon and springs to his rescue. The grateful Arturo (Giustiniano Alpi) invites Martin to have breakfast with his family, who turn out to be well to-do. This is where Martin meets Arturo’s pretty sister Elena (Jessica Cressy) who will be the love of his life.

The directionless (and penniless) Martin is enthralled and fascinated not only by Elena’s loveliness, but her education and refinement. Intuiting that his uneducated proletarian upbringing puts him out of her league, he decides then and there to become a man of letters, come hell or high water. Initially, Elena’s interest does not lean toward amour, but she is not immune to Martin’s innate charm. She also senses his natural intelligence; so, she begins to tutor him, encouraging him to expand his intellect (not unlike My Fair Lady, except in this scenario…Elena is Professor Higgins, and Martin is Eliza Doolittle).

Martin begins to write in earnest. At a soiree hosted by Elena’s family, Martin recites one of his poems, to polite applause. One of the guests is Russ Brissenden, an older gentleman of mysterious means. The straight-talking Brissenden tells Martin his poem had substance and was not appreciated by the bourgeoisie guests. Brissenden, a Socialist and writer himself, becomes a mentor, encouraging Martin to write about what he knows.

Eventually Martin and Elena’s relationship does develop into full-blown romance. However, when Martin tells her that he has decided to pursue writing as a living, he is puzzled and hurt when she tells him that the subjects that he chooses to write about are too “raw” and “real” and do not offer enough “hope” to people. She implies that if he does not find a trade to fall back on, she is afraid they will never be able to get married.

Martin goes to Brissenden for counseling. When Brissenden tells him that he needs to forget about pleasing Elena (bluntly referring to her as an “idiot”) and reset his priorities to focus solely on finding his voice as a writer, Martin sees red and physically attacks Brissenden. He immediately apologizes, as he now sees that Elena’s harsh appraisal of his work was not constructive criticism, so much as it was her outing herself as a classist.

In a narrative jump 2/3 of the way through, Martin has not only found his voice as a writer, essayist, and poet, but fame and fortune as such. He is also cynical, apolitical, and indifferent to success. He’s given most of his money away; mostly to those who helped him when he was struggling. At a public event, he sneeringly refers to himself as a “hoodlum and a sailor” to adoring fans. We get a sketch of Martin’s wilderness years between his breakup with Elena and achieving world acclaim, but with no explanation given for his apparent descent into a chronic state of existential malaise and self-loathing.

For the final third of the film, Martin tap-dances willy-nilly around the edges of the time-space continuum like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five. In one scene, he watches a group of Fascist black shirts enjoying recreation at the beach. There are references to an imminent “war” involving Italy during what appears to be the late 70s…but then we see a vintage newsreel of a Nazi book burning in the 1930s. It is artfully constructed, which I suppose injects lyricism into Marcello’s film, but it somehow feels like window dressing.

Then again, if I may jump ahead and steal a line from Mank: “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours; all you can hope is to leave an impression of one.” On the plus side, despite its overreaching themes Martin Eden is a pleasing throwback to class struggle dramas from the 60s and 70s like Visconti’s The Leopard and Bertolucci’s 1900.

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Regarding Upton Sinclair. He and Jack London were not only contemporaries, but mutual admirers of each other’s writings. Before he wrote The Jungle, the 1906 novel that put him on the map, Sinclair (who had over 90 books to his credit by his death in 1968 at the age of 90) is said to have been greatly influenced by People of the Abyss, London’s 1903 book about the slums of London’s East End. And here’s what London said of The Jungle:

“Dear Comrades: . . . The book we have been waiting for these many years! It will open countless ears that have been deaf to Socialism. It will make thousands of converts to our cause. It depicts what our country really is, the home of oppression and injustice, a nightmare of misery, an inferno of suffering, a human hell, a jungle of wild beasts.”

That sounds awfully close to the kind of book that the (fictional) Socialist Russ Brissenden would love to see his (fictional) protégé Martin Eden write. Not a stretch, considering London was a Socialist. In fact, he and Sinclair were charter members of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Founded in 1905, the I.S.S. had a stated purpose to “throw light on the world-wide movement of industrial democracy known as socialism.”

But what’s most interesting about Martin Eden (commonly assumed to be a semi-autobiographical work), is that its protagonist rejects Socialism outright. According to Wiki, in the copy of the novel which he inscribed for Upton Sinclair, London wrote, “One of my motifs, in this book, was an attack on individualism (in the person of the hero). I must have bungled it, for not a single reviewer has discovered it.” And so it goes.

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For a guy who has been dead for 53 years, Upton Sinclair sure gets around a lot these days. Admittedly he has but a spectral “presence” in the margins of Martin Eden (as I explained above) but he gets a cameo and maybe a quarter-page of dialog in David Fincher’s Mank. Well, “he” as in a reasonable facsimile, in the person of Bill Nye the Science Guy. Nye portrays Sinclair delivering a speech in his iteration as a politician, when he ran for Governor of California in 1934 (he ran as a Democrat and lost the race).

However, the focus of David Fincher’s Mank is Herman J. Mankiewicz – Hollywood screenwriter, inveterate gambler, world-class inebriate, and born tummler. More specifically, it is a (more-or-less accurate) chronicle of the part he played in the creation of Orson Welles’ 1941 classic Citizen Kane. Which reminds me of a funny story.

Back in 2007, I published a review of a film wherein I innocuously referenced to The Princess Bride as “Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride.” At the time, Hullabaloo readers were able to comment on posts. Man, did I ever release the Kraken with that one. To say that I was beset upon is understatement. “ROB REINER’S The Princess Bride?! Ingrate! Philistine! Aren’t you aware that William Goldman wrote the screenplay?!” Yes, I was.

This sparked a lively discussion on “whose” film it was. Call me madcap, but I’m sure I’ve read and heard the phrase “Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause” many more times than the phrase “Stewart Stern’s Rebel Without a Cause” (as in never!). Of course I realize there’s no film without a screenwriter. And I’m also aware there are films written and directed by the same person. I just never got the memo about these shorthand “rules”.

So is it “Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane”? Or is it “Herman J. Mankiewicz’s Citizen Kane”?

In his ambitious attempt to answer that million-dollar question in just over two hours, Fincher, armed with a sharp and literate screenplay by his late father Jack Fincher (who passed away in 2003; I’d hazard that this project was in development for a spell) has layered his biopic with enough Hollywood meta to make even Quentin Tarantino plotz.

The story opens in 1940, by which time Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) has burned his bridges in Tinseltown, thanks to his sharp tongue and love of the bottle. Despite this (or perhaps he is attracted by Mank’s budget-friendly mix of writing prowess and financial desperation), Welles (Tom Burke) recruits him to write a screenplay for his first film. Welles, with a commanding and formidable presence that belied his 24 years, was a hard man to say “no” to. He had already made a splash in radio and theater and had just signed an unprecedented contract with RKO which gave him full creative control of his projects.

Mank is convalescing from an auto accident that has left him bedridden with a broken leg. Welles has set him up at an isolated ranch house in Victorville, California, where Mank dictates his screenplay to his British secretary (Lily Collins). In a slightly cruel but pragmatic move, Wells has also provided Mank with a cabinet full of liquor (surreptitiously laced with Seconal) at the foot of the bed…out of reach. This dangles a carrot for motivation to heal up and focus on writing, but also (sort of) guarantees rationing.

Welles enlists his producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton) to make house calls to keep tabs on Mank’s progress with the script (which eventually tops 300 pages, much to Houseman’s chagrin). As Mank toils on his tome, flashbacks to the 1930s are cleverly interwoven to tell both the story of Mank’s mercurial career in the Hollywood studio system, as well as illustrate how his equally mercurial acquaintanceship with newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Hearst’s lover, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) provided the grist for creating the characters in Citizen Kane. (in the event Citizen Kane remains unchecked on your bucket list, that would be the one where “Charles Foster Kane” unquestionably rhymes with “William Randolph Hearst”).

Film buffs who have given Citizen Kane a spin will enjoy playing “spot the visual quote”, as Fincher has festooned them throughout (nice B&W photography by Erik Messerschmidt adds to the verisimilitude). The elder Fincher’s script gives the characters much to chew on, particularly Oldman, who merrily fires off Mank’s droll barbs with deadly accuracy. Fine work by a large cast that includes Ferdinand Kingsley (as Irving Thalberg), Arless Howard (as Louis B. Mayer), Tom Pelphrey (as Mank’s brother Joseph) and Tuppence Middleton playing Mank’s long-suffering but devoted wife Sara.

As far as resolving “whose” film Citizen Kane is…here’s one take, from a recent BFI essay by the always insightful Farran Smith Nehme (who blogs as the Self-Styled Siren):

Herman had a wealth of pent-up ideas – about lonely boyhoods, about newspapermen, about loyalty and hubris. Over the course of his stay in Victorville, Mankiewicz poured it all into 325 pages of a script called ‘American’, the extravagant title seeming to confirm that there was too much material for one movie to contain. In Mank, brother Joe tells him: “It’s the best thing you’ve ever done,” and for Herman, the confirmation is already superfluous.

Mank shows that Herman had signed a contract and accepted a bonus on the condition that Welles would get sole credit, but once the work is done, Herman reneges. The movie implies that in this instance, it was Welles punching up the script: “I’ll just run it through my typewriter,” he tells Herman.

People who revere Citizen Kane can choose whether or not to accept this scenario. Those who have read scholars such as Robert Carringer and Harlan Lebo excavating the surviving scripts and records at RKO, or essays by Joseph McBride or Jonathan Rosenbaum on the topic, almost certainly won’t.

In his 1978 biography, also titled Mank, Richard Meryman estimated Herman’s contribution to the final Kane script at 60 per cent, plus revisions he contributed later. Critic Pauline Kael, in her essay “Raising Kane”, put it at virtually 100 per cent, which even John Houseman said went too far. Houseman added, more to the point, that Citizen Kane “is Orson’s picture just as Stagecoach is John Ford’s picture, even though Dudley Nichols wrote it”.

Rule of thumb? Give credit where credit is due…when practical. Welles summed it up best when he said: “A writer needs a pen, an artist needs a brush, but a filmmaker needs an army.”