Rafiki

This is a great film, originally banned in Kenya and only released after my UCLA Film School friend, and Director of this film, Wanuri Kahiu sued the Kenyan government. According to Wikipedia, “On 21 September 2018, the Kenyan High Court lifted the ban on the film.” I was able to check this out at my local library here in Appleton, Wisconsin. It’s also available on Amazon Prime, Hulu and Showtime. It’s a great story, with Capulet and Montague overtones and a scene reminiscent of a film that recently blew me away, David Lean’s, Ryan’s Daughter. There is a truly indelible, good natured human spirit that runs through this film and I highly recommend it to you.

Mank

With a David Fincher movie, you know you are going to see a well crafted work of art at the highest standards of the cinematic craft. Fincher himself championed (the rumor was part-owned) one of the first cinema grade digital cameras, the Viper, which was groundbreaking back in the aughts. With Mank, I’d also congratulate Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt on some exquisite and indelible images. If you’ve ever been up to Hearst Castle for a visit and imagined what the grounds must have been like back in the days when Chaplin was a regular house guest and tickling the ivories after dinner, this film will give you some idea. Famously, newspaper mogul W.R. Hearst kept a menagerie including escaped zebras that still roam San Simeon to this day. In short, it’s really a beautiful movie. 

Gary Oldman is transcendent in the role. He becomes Mank in a way that we will forever associate with someone who we hadn’t really thought that deeply about before. It’s a profound performance in its subtlety. He takes on a character under all kinds of pressure and brings levity and in turn empathy from the audience. Gary Oldman is someone else who merits our high expectations.

Perhaps oddly, Citizen Kane, the film that this one revolves around, though drummed into my brain in the countless film classes I’ve taken — and the subsequent passing on of such drumming to my own film students — has never really spoken to me. I’d rather curl up to say, It’s a Wonderful Life or Strangers on a Train. If I’m supposed to go crazy for deep focus shots, there is always Ozu (Master Japanese Director, not Greek alcohol, though I’m sure there’s an argument that can be made.)

What does strike me about Mank and Kane are the close-ups. As was done with great precision and emotional effect by Director Neil Butler in this years’ fabulous short, “Herzog & Morris”, the extreme close-up can work like a  punctuation mark on an island all its own. Editorially, it doesn’t have to graphically match on action, it doesn’t have to flow seamlessly from the previous or following shot. It can just be there saying, check me out.! Just like that.

The genius here is the threading of these purely cinematic punctuations within the great theatre that, in this case Gary Oldman, brings to the role of Herman J. Mankiewicz. Mank, a mensch who saved an entire town from the Nazi’s but is himself drowning from the bottle. In real life, he would die the year after writing the script for Citizen Kane. The film also gets into his battles with Meyer, his employer and unscrupulous if not downright evil head of MGM. Though Meyer, Wells and Hearst for that matter, are painted in caricature in order to focus more on the relationship between Mank and Hearst’s mistress, the Brooklyn actress and future philanthropist, Marion Davies, played convincingly by Amanda Seyfried.

The film also takes a stab at the sociopolitical milieu and the crushing hand of the studio and dominant political class. These sub-plots work in the sense that we can get to know Mank better in relief; as a man with a conscience, a backbone, a gift for storytelling and ultimately a disease that he couldn’t escape. 

If you have Netflix, I highly recommend this adventure and if you don’t, I’m sure that this title will find its way to your library’s shelves or streaming service soon enough.

The Forty-Year-Old Version

A special guest review to the LnD Report by Joana Kosowsky Dane

After reading half a sentence about the film “40-Year-Old Version,” I knew I needed to see it.  

Radha Blank plays herself, missing her dead mother, unable to return her brother’s phone calls. She is chronically late to the after-school theatre class she teaches where one of the girls, frustrated with Miss B’s indifference to her heartfelt spoken word, calls her washed up, a fake. It stings more than the girl knows.  Radha had higher expectations for her art, no doubt.  Her name is on the 30 Under 30 Playwright’s Award that sits among the clutter on her dresser.  But now she’s 40, with that all-too-familiar reality facing aging artists: What do I have to show for this life I’ve lived?

Filmed in black and white, we follow Radha on a journey through New York – Harlem and the Bronx and a brief foray on Broadway – the camera in close, capturing all the details of her pain and her comedy.  She glances at the camera and we know exactly how she’s feeling about D, the guy who lays down beats for anyone willing to bring him a bag of weed; or about J. Whitman, a famous producer who is willing to give Radha a big break but only if she compromises the integrity of her play by turning the characters into racial stereotypes.  

What’s an aging artist to do?  

Interspersed are color photographs explaining years of back story in a single flash (like the one of Radha and her gay agent, dancing together at her high school prom); and postcard sized snippets of interviews with characters from the neighborhood giving blunt and hilarious commentary on Radha’s middle-aged life.  

She’s down, but not so far down that she can’t grasp inspiration when it strikes, rapping one afternoon about all the ailments that come with being 40.  “Why my ass always horny? Why I always gotta pee? Why a young boy on the bus offer his seat to me? Why my skin so dry? Why am I yawning right now?  Why them AARP niggers sending shit to my house?” She catches the ear of the elusive D who invites her to perform her piece Poverty Porn at his next showcase.  She fails hard.  But we see what the past 10 years have taught her, a resilience that comes when an artist keeps creating despite being crushed and ignored.  

D takes her on a long drive, to a Queen of the Ring competition where 4 women battle with their rhymes in a stark boxing ring.  Radha is awed by their raw power and their courage.  They show her how it’s done, and in turn, she shows us.  Keep doing, stay brave. 

Radha goes to see her brother.  Trying to figure out what to do with one of their mom’s numerous paintings that neither have room for, her brother says it will just have to go into storage.  “Wow. You come here with a dream, and your work ends up in storage,” says Radha, a pitiful conclusion to an artist’s life.  Her brother sees it differently.  “She did what she wanted. She was a teacher, a curator.  She chanted, she traveled, she did some art.  She lived a life.”  Her children, their mother always said, were her greatest creation.

Radha realizes the reward is not in the big production, but in the much smaller daily task of staying true to her art.  And when she does, she wins the admiration of her theatre students, though she won the viewers’ admiration long before that.  

Watchable Westerns that I have Watched

Question:  My boy and I are on a Western film kick that started with Ballad of Buster Scruggs (way underrated).  From there we hit The Searchers, Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, and Hondo.  Last night we watched Butch Cassidy, which, while exceptional at times, felt dated and longer than its run time.

What else should be on the list?

Answer (D):  The key to answering this question is to know that there are lots of Best Westerns, and then there are the Best Westerns, and then there are the best Westerns, but these are some of my best Westerns, at least the ones I can remember:

Can’t Miss

  • Tombstone
  • Lonesome Dove series (!)

For pure, wholesome, family-like entertainment, it’s hard to go astray with these two.   The apex of Val Kilmer.

The Spaghetti Trinity, plus one and then plus another one

  • Fistful of Dollars
  • For a Few Dollars More
  • The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
  • Once Upon a Time in the West
  • Unforgiven

I recommend seeing at least one of the first two two before diving into Il Buono and friends.    Then wait a year and watch Unforgiven (spoiler alert: he aint like that no more).

Once Upon a Time is not the fastest-moving movie, but it is exceptional.

Top Ten in my Favorite Movies

  • There Will Be Blood

There is not a greater movie about American capitalism than There Will Be Blood.

I Really Enjoyed These Movies

  • True Grit
  • A River Runs through It (!)

I am partial to the Coen version!, though you might have to watch it with closed captions.  And, who doesn’t like movies about would-be professors and their exceptionally good-looking brothers? I also enjoyed Ballad of Buster Scruggs, especially the Liam Neeson one. 

And Franco, of course.

Modern Westerns 

  • No Country for Old Men
  • Hell or High Water 
  • Lone Star
  • Gold

No Country is exceptional, but too violent for sharing with anyone not accustomed to violent movies.  Hell or High Water was a little preachy upon rewatching, but was one of our L&D Picks for 2016.  Also violent.   Gold is definitely underrated. McConnaughey in tighty whiteys that are neither tight nor white.

 Possibly too Violent, but mostly great

  • Hateful Eight

Tarantino kept the tension high for a while, but then it devolves into Kill Bill.  Isn’t that just like him?

Way too Violent, but completely great

  • The Wild Bunch

Way Too Violent and Disturbing and Under No Circumstances Share this with Your Kid, but Great and, hey, Nick Cave!

  • The Proposition

I was so excited about this movie and I was loving watching this movie and there are so many things right about this movie and, wait, what just happened?!

I Want to Live in a World With These

  • McCabe and Mrs. Miller
  • Dead Man

Altman and Jarmusch weigh in, wow.  How this missed the Jarmusch Film Festival, I’ll never know.

More from the Classics

  • Treasure of the Sierra Madre (more western mining!)
  • The Ox-Bow Incident (yikes!)
  • Shane (I want to live forever!)

More Good Stuff

  • The Long Riders
  • Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
  • The Assassination of Jesse James…

That’s Entertainment

  • Pale Rider
  • 3:10 to Yuma

Does anyone besides me remember The Magnolias version of “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”?  To paraphrase a colleague, “The Magnolias don’t even remember playing that song.”

I really liked the remake of 3:10 to Yuma right up until near the end, and then…. Russel Crowe is very good.  Gretchen Mol is even better.  

So, that’s a hundred hours of entertainment, and you might even learn something along the way.   Hit me up if you are planning to see any of these on the big screen.

Except for The Proposition.  I can’t handle that again.

HBO in August

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I recently re-upped my HBO subscription and have been scrolling through several L&D reviews of some of their upcoming marquee movie offerings.

The Favourite, August 3  (An L&D favourite.)

Aquaman, August 10 (Horrible, even by DC standards.)

The Mule, August 17

Can You Ever Forgive Me, August 31 (An even bigger L&D favourite.)

And if I had done this for July it would have looked like this:

Bohemian Rhapsody, July 6  (“Nice pants!”)

First Man, July 20  (“Is she still mad at him?”)

Widows, July 27  (“Even Liam Neeson does some acting, in a film where remarkably no one gets kidnapped.”)

Aside from Aquaman, these are all solid fare or better.

If I get around to it, I might weigh in on the five-part Chernobyl series, which was pretty good, though ultimately too action movie-ie to characterize the real thing.   I can’t decide if I’m looking forward to The Watchmen or not.