Here’s a quick overview of some fabulous four-star films I’ve seen in the last few days. Consider these mini reviews of maximum impact movies.
I would have posted earlier about Mank, but I was googling everyone. An excellent Gary Oldman plays screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, laid up with a broken leg while writing Citizen Kane (for which he won an Oscar); and Tom Burke is Orson Welles (who shared the Academy Award with Mank).
This black and white gem from David Fincher (in honour of the film’s title the temptation to call him Finchy is strong, but I will resist) is very funny, especially if you’re a fellow scribe.
Decidedly meta and gorgeous to look at, Mank boasts a sterling performance from Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies, actress and longterm mistress of Louis B. Mayer. (You know how sometimes you watch an established performer in a movie and suddenly “get” them? That’s how I feel about Seyfried in Mank, who brings out Davies’ warmth, brains and knowing sadness.)
There’s quite a bit about the California gubernatorial race between the Republican Frank Merriam and Democrat Upton Sinclair (threatening the dreaded socialism, much to Hollywood’s terror!), and the propaganda machinations behind Merriam’s win, which sounds boring but isn’t at all (and is particularly pertinent at the moment).
Gary Oldman and Tom Burke are both way too old, though their performances make up for it.
The debate over which man contributed most to the screenplay rumbles on – check out this Screen Rant article for more.
MANK is currently streaming on Netflix.
This fascinating biography of Lady Day, directed by James Erskine, has been built from the interview tapes and manuscript of Linda Lipnack Kuehl, a young journalist who died before her long-researched book could even be published.
Kuehl spent 10 years researching and writing about Billie Holiday, singer and – as Erskine highlights through Kuehl’s interviews – racial justice activist.
Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan in 1915, growing up in Baltimore before moving to Harlem in her early teens; she died in 1959 aged only 44, after years of drug and alcohol abuse, just as she seemed to be getting her personal life back on track.
Linda Kuehl, a teacher and part-time magazine interviewer, grew up in New York and was found dead in Washington DC in 1978, having fallen from a window. The police claimed she killed herself, though her family are suspicious.
The documentary features Holiday’s songs of course, carefully placed, and some reconstructions; along with oodles of interviews from the great, the not so great, the good and not so good who populated her world.
Kuehl’s interviewees include big names and background musicians, narcotics agents, Billie’s friends and lovers, her producer, and even a pimp from her teen years.
Holiday’s friend, the singer Tony Bennett, asks why women singers seem to reach the top then crack; Sylvia Syms calls her “…the Queen Bee. Without even trying she was the most sensual of all the ladies.”
Linda’s tapes are hugely enlightening, sometimes because of what they say and sometimes because of what they refuse to talk about; some rage at the star’s treatment, while others don’t seem to care.
Constantly held back by racism – you can almost see the shoulder shrug in the voice of a white bandmate when relating on audiotape how Holiday had to sleep on the bus after a performance while they went to a whites-only hotel – the captivating and hugely talented Billie Holiday shines as an otherworldly force even as she fights racial injustice, and faces the every day realities of discrimination and abuse.
The linking of Linda to Billie in the film doesn’t really work, partly because if they’re going to do that we actually need more Linda – though her decade’s work is eye-opening, as Erskine uses both women’s voices to highlight the grubby and glamorous world inhabited by Holiday and probed by Linda years later.
Billie is available in the US and UK:
Sound of Metal
A superb central performance from Riz Ahmed anchors this story, directed by Darius Marder and co-written with his brother Abraham.
Ahmed is Ruben, several years clean from drugs but now in a co-dependent relationship with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke), also his partner in their punk-metal duo. Over a few days he loses almost all his hearing, throwing his life, relationship and sense of self into turmoil.
Sound of Metal isn’t about how Ruben gets “cured” though that’s certainly his first aim – surely he can be fixed instantly, and life can trundle on as before?
It’s really about finding himself between two worlds, and how he navigates that: the Deaf community, both the wider one and a small group of deaf ex-addicts he moves in with, their founding principle that deafness is not a problem to be fixed; and his old life, including his musical career, Lou, and his hearing.
And never was a sound-track so well named. The film’s sound design is integral to the story, from the invasive drip-drip of a coffee pot to the intermittent underwater-like muffling as Ruben’s hearing starts to go.
This is a surprising, moving and resolutely unsentimental film, that understands both the frayed messiness and essential truths of life. Ruben has to find his own way towards an authentic life, that gives him peace both in the moment and going forward.
By the way, during a Film Independent Q&A Marder explained that the title comes from a closed-captioning subtitle.
Sound of Metal is available on Amazon Prime in the US.