The Films of 2020: Mank (dir by David Fincher)


As I watched David Fincher’s latest film, Mank, my main feeling was one of wanting to like the film more than I actually did.

I mean, really, the film sounds like it was specifically made to appeal to me.  It’s a film about the Golden Age of Hollywood, which is an era that has always fascinated me as both a film lover and history nerd.  Even more specifically, it’s a film about the writing of Citizen Kane, which is one of my favorite movies.  (On one of our first dates, Jeff and I snuck into a showing of Citizen Kane at the Magnolia.  The crime was fun and finally getting to see the movie on the big screen was even better.)  It’s a film that features a host of historical figures, everyone from Louis B. Mayer to Irving Thalberg to Orson Welles to William Randolph Hearst to Marion Davies to the title character himself, the self-destructive screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.

Those historical figures are played by a truly impressive collection of actors, almost all of whom give memorable performances.  Gary Oldman plays Mankiewicz, lurching about Hollywood in a drunken haze and calling out the system while, somewhat hypocritically, also attempting to profit from it.  Charles Dance is compellingly arrogant as William Randolph Hearst.  Tom Burke captures Orson Welles’s trademark voice and charisma, making an impression despite having surprisingly little screen time.  Ferdinand Kingsley plays Irving Thalberg and steals nearly every scene in which he appears.  Arliss Howard is a marvel as the manipulate Mayer while Amanda Seyfried gives the best performance of her career so far as Marion Davies.  The film portrays Davies as being intelligent, witty, and perhaps the only truly honest person in Hollywood.  If it can be argued that Citizen Kane robbed Davies of her dignity, it can also be argued that Mank makes a sincere attempt to give it back to her.  With the exception of a distracting cameo from Bill Nye (yes, the science guy), Mank is perfectly cast.

And yet, despite all of that, the film never really engaged me on either an emotional or an intellectual level.  The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous but the film plods from one incident to another, skipping back and forth in time and trying to convince us that Herman J. Mankiewicz was a more fascinating figure than he comes across as being.  For the most part, Mankiewicz comes across as being a bit of a bore and the film makes the classic mistake of assuming that we’ll naturally like him just because he’s the main character.  Gary Oldman is as charismatic as ever but the film doesn’t give him much of character to play.  Mankiewicz stumbles from scene to scene, searching for a drink and always complaining about one thing or another.  A little bit of Herman J. Mankiewicz goes a long way and, once it becomes apparent that he’s going to spend the entire film perpetually annoyed, Mankiewicz becomes a rather uninteresting character.  Long before this film even reached the halfway mark, I was on the side of everyone who wanted Mankiewicz to stop talking and just finish writing the damn script.

If you’re one of the ten or so people who is still outraged over the failure of Upton Sinclair’s 1934 gubernatorial campaign, you’ll probably enjoy this film.  For those of you haven’t read Greg Mitchell’s The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics, Upton Sinclair was a writer and longtime socialist activist who won the 1934 Democratic nomination to run for governor of California.  Despite garnering a lot of national attention with his End Poverty In California (EPIC) platform, Sincliar was overwhelmingly defeated by Republican Frank Merriam.  Mank argues that Sinclair’s defeat was largely due to dirty tricks and negative campaigning, most of it masterminded by Mayer and Hearst.  Mankiewicz is a Sinclair supporter who is angered by the underhanded efforts of Mayer and Hearst.  The script for Citizen Kane is, at least partially, Mankiewicz’s revenge on Hearst and Mayer for working against Sinclair and it’s something that Mankiewicz feels so strongly about that he’s willing to demand that Orson Welles give him credit for his work on the screenplay.  It’s a legitimate theory, but the film’s exploration of it feels rather shallow and intellectually lazy.  Just as it did with the character of Mankiewicz, the film makes the mistake of assuming the audiences will automatically find the candidacy of Upton Sinclair to be as inspiring as the film does.  The film continually insists that we should care but, when it finally has a chance to show us why Upton Sinclair’s campaign was important, all it can provide is Bill Nye The Science Guy, standing on a platform and complaining about religious hypocrisy.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of a casual acquaintance demanding to know why his twitter feed didn’t convince you to vote for Bernie Sanders.

From a historical point of view, the film does itself no favors by creating a fictional friend of Mankiewicz’s, one who is so consumed with guilt over his part in defeating Upton Sinclair that he ends up committing suicide.  It feels rather cheap and predictable, an easy way to give Mankiewicz some sort of motivation beyond being infatuated with Marion Davies.  Historically, the truth of the matter is that Frank Merriam turned to the left as soon as he was elected and Upton Sinclair went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for writing a series of now-unreadable books about an international do-gooder named Lanny Budd.  Meanwhile, director Felix E. Feist (who was responsible for shooting many of the anti-Sinclair newsreels that MGM released into cinemas) went on to have a very long career and never indicated that he felt any guilty for playing a part in Sinclair’s defeat.

Like many of David Fincher’s film, Mank works best as an exercise in style.  The black-and-white cinematography is to die for.  Some of the shots — especially early in the film — are breathtaking.  Mankiewicz may spend the majority of the film railing against the excesses of Hollywood but, visually, Fincher can’t get enough of them.  Indeed, much as with The Social Network, Fincher seems to be spend the majority of the film at odds with the the film’s overwritten and rather pompous script.  (Of course, Mank was written by Fincher’s late father while The Social Network was written by Aaron Sorkin.  While there’s a lot to criticize about Jack Fincher’s script, one can still be thankful that he wrote the script instead of Sorkin.  One can only imagine how Marion Davies would have been portrayed if Aaron Sorkin had been involved.)  Mank is narratively deficient but visually stunning.  The film’s script rather snarkily dismisses Orson Welles as being a mere “showman” but, as film, Mank proves that sometimes a showman is exactly what’s needed.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee and It’s Damn Important: The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (dir by Charles Reisner)


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Last night, I really needed a break from thinking about this stupid, asinine presidential election that we have coming up here in the U.S.  Fortunately, TCM provided me with one by showing The Hollywood Revue of 1929!

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is probably one of the most obscure film to ever be nominated for best picture.  It’s a plotless collection of songs and comedy bits, all performed by actors who were under contract to MGM.  In fact, the movie might be best described as a two-hour commercial for MGM.  The message of the film seems to be: “Now that movies have sound, look what MGM can do!”

With the exception of Greta Garbo and Lon Chaney, every MGM star makes an appearance in Hollywood Revue.  Everyone sings a song and does a dance, even if some of them are better singers and dancers than others.  The revue is hosted by Conrad Nagel (who looks very dapper in a tux but still seems to be strangely uncomfortable with his hosting duties) and Jack Benny (who plays his violin and gets annoyed every time he’s interrupted by an MGM stock player).  Joan Crawford (who Nagal describes as being “one of my favorites”) sings, “Got A Feeling For You,” and she may be off-key but you can’t help but appreciate the fact that she’s doing her best.  Buster Keaton does a dance.  Laurel and Hardy perform a magic act that doesn’t go very well.  Marion Davies does a tribute to the military and I’m sure that, somewhere, William Randolph Hearst was smiling.  Chorus girls sit in the background and smile at the camera and, as someone who knows what it’s like to be in the chorus, I enjoyed watching as a few of the smarter and braver ones attempted to steal the audience’s attention away from the headliners.

At one point, Jack Benny reached into his suit jacket and revealed that a miniature version of actress Bessie Love was apparently living in the pocket.  He held Bessie in the palm of his hand and proceeded to have a conversation with her and all I could think about was the end of Mulholland Drive, when that tiny old couple cornered Naomi Watts in her apartment.  When Benny placed Bessie on the ground, she grew to normal height and sang a song.

During the second half of the film, silent screen star John Gilbert plays the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, opposite Norma Shearer.  First he does it in Shakespeare’s words and then he does it again in 1929 language.  Lionel Barrymore directs them.  Interestingly enough, Shearer (who was married to The Hollywood Revue‘s producer, Irving Thalberg) would later play Juliet in 1936’s Romeo and Juliet.  Barrymore, though best remembered as Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life, actually was a prominent film director in 1929 and would even invent the boom mic.  As for Gilbert, legend has it that the Hollywood Revue was the first time that audiences actually heard him speak and they were so unimpressed with his voice that his career ended.  Having now seen Gilbert speak — well, he didn’t have the greatest or sexiest voice but he still sounded better than Jean Hagen did in Singin’ In The Rain.

Speaking of Singin’ In the Rain, that song was specifically written for Hollywood Revue!  The entire cast sings it at the end of the film.

Seen today, there’s something charming about how old-fashioned and corny The Hollywood Revue is.  I imagine that some people will laugh at it but, honestly, it’s still more entertaining than that stupid live version of The Sound of Music that they put on TV two years ago.  The Hollywood Revue is basically the classic film equivalent of a high school talent show, where everyone does their best and a good deal of the charm comes from seeing how silly it all is.  If you love TCM, you’ll enjoy seeing all the Golden Age performers trying to do their best.  If you don’t love TCM, then go to Hell.

The Hollywood Revue is usually listed as being a nominee for best picture.  Actually, the truth is a little bit more complicated.  For the 2nd annual Academy Awards, there were no nominees.  Instead, the awards were determined by a select committee and only the winners were announced.  Much like the Cannes Film Festival, no film received more than one award.  Broadway Melody (which starred Hollywood Revue‘s Bessie Love) was named best picture.

However, notes were kept of the committee’s meeting and those notes indicate that Hollywood Revue was considered as a possible pick for best picture.  Hence, Hollywood Revue is considered to be a best picture nominee even though there were no official nominees that year.

Anyway, if you’re a classic film lover, keep an eye out for Hollywood Revue the next time that it shows up on TCM!

Here’s Your Chance To Tell Lisa Marie What To Watch!


So, guess what I did this morning?  That’s right — I put on a blindfold, a stumbled over to my ever-growing Blu-ray, DVD, and even VHS collection and I randomly selected 12 films!

Why did I do this?

I did it so you, the beloved readers of Through the Shattered Lens, could once again have a chance to tell me what to do.  At the end of this post, you’ll find a poll.  Hopefully, between now and next Monday (that’s March 24th), a few of you will take the time to vote for which of these 12 films I should watch and review.  I will then watch the winner on Tuesday and post my review on Wednesday night.  In short, I’m putting the power to dominate in your hands.  Just remember: with great power comes great … well, you know how it goes.

Here are the 12 films that I randomly selected this morning:

The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) — This German film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.  It tells the true life story of the left-wing German terrorist group, The RAF.

The Cat’s Meow (2001) — From director Peter Bogdonavich, this film speculates about the events that led to the shooting of silent film director Thomas H. Ince.  Starring Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies, Edward Herrmann as William Randolph Hearst, and Eddie Izzard as Charlie Chaplin.

Heavenly Creatures (1994) — The close relationship between two teenage girls (Melanie Lynesky and Kate Winslet) leads to both a vibrant fantasy world and real-life murder.  Directed by Peter Jackson.

In A Lonely Place (1950) — In this film noir from director Nicholas Ray, Humphrey Bogart plays a screenwriter who may (or may not) be a murderer.

Liquid Sky (1983) — In this low-budget, independent science fiction film, an alien lands in New York and soon several members of the city’s underground art scene are vaporized.  Not surprisingly, it all has to do with heroin.

Made in Britain (1983) — A very young Tim Roth makes his debut in this British film.  Roth plays Trevor, a Neo-Nazi who — despite being intelligent and charismatic — also seems to be intent on destroying himself and everything that he sees.

Much Ado About Nothing (2013) — In between The Avengers and Agents of SHIELD, Joss Whedon found the time to direct this adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.

Peyton Place (1957) — In this Oscar-nominated film, the sordid secrets of an outwardly idyllic New England town are exposed.

Pretty Poison (1968) — Having just been released from a mental institution, Dennis (Anthony Perkins) finds himself involved with teenager Sue Anne (Tuesday Weld), who — despite her wholesome appearance — is actually psychotic.

Troll 2 (1990) — A family moves to Nilbog, a small town that is populated by vegetarian goblins.  This movie is widely considered to be one of the worst ever made.

Walkabout (1971) — In this visually stunning Nicolas Roeg film, a teenage girl and her younger brother find themselves stranded and left for dead in the Australian outback.  They try to survive with the help of an Aborigine.

Zabriskie Point (1970) — In this 1970 film, the great Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni takes a look at the 60s counter-culture.  Airplanes are stolen, buildings explode, and orgies magically materialize in the middle of the desert.

The poll will be open until Monday, March 24th.

Happy voting!