Film, Writing

Partisan Cinema: MANK (2020) – Citizens of Ideology

In a new, recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

One senses the frustrations of writer Upton Sinclair, erstwhile Democratic nominee for the Governorship of California in 1934 and open socialist, might not have featured so prominently had Mank been made, as planned, in the late 1990s.

The story of legendary screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (portrayed here in wonderfully shambolic form by Gary Oldman) as he furiously raced to complete the screenplay of Orson Welles’ future masterpiece Citizen Kane, was penned originally in the ‘90s by the late Jack Fincher, who passed away in 2003. His son, renowned auteur David Fincher, planned to make the film after 1997’s The Game with Kevin Spacey (remember him?) in the titular role, before Fincher’s own seminal masterpiece Fight Club beckoned, but the stars refused to align. Fincher, after a cinematic break of six years following his adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, has finally—thanks to Netflix—provided viewers with his father’s legacy at the tail end of a year where audiences have been starved of prominent cinema.

Yet Mank, arriving at the end of 2020, has not just fallen in what we might dare to hope are the impending final months of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also twelve months of sweeping social and cultural unrest.

This might well be the biopic of a long-dead man in a now near-mythic cinematic age, revolving around the creation of what many have considered for decades to be the greatest film ever made, but Mank’s politics feel heightened for modern audiences. Fincher, borrowing Citizen Kane’s then-revolutionary non-linear structure, flashes back in episodic fashion from 1940 to deeper back into the 1930s and sees his lead character unconsciously crafting the elements of his Oscar-winning script from powerful, influential figures, and political movements, of the previous decade.

Mank positions the brilliance of its protagonist, and the work of genius he creates, within the tussle of polarised political ideologies in a manner that, intentionally or not, reflects the America of 2020.
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TV, Writing

TV Review: THE CROWN (Season 4)

The fourth season of The Crown revolves around three of the most powerful, beloved and divisive women in 20th century British history: Queen Elizabeth II, Margaret Thatcher and Diana, Princess of Wales.

That makes Season Four of Peter Morgan’s half-century-plus spanning political, dramatic opus perhaps the most anticipated year of the series to date. Filled with intrigue the post-WW2 years of Elizabeth’s coronation or the revolutionary state-led changes to British societal fabric of the 1960s might be, they struggle to hold a candle to the scandal-fuelled, politically thrilling 1980s as Her Majesty finds herself balanced between two very different wars. One between the newly-minted Thatcher and the people suffering thanks to her policies, with her one-woman quest to banish economic decline and revive moral-led, individualist British values in full flow. The other betwixt her son and heir, Charles, and his beautiful new wife, a woman who swiftly captured the heart of a nation.

Many viewers of this season of The Crown will have been there and recall this period of modern British history vividly.

Taking place between 1979 and 1990, I was a touch too young to remember key incidents play out here, born as I was in 1982, but having come into the world a mere three weeks before Prince William, I grew up acutely aware of Princess Diana as someone who meant a great deal to my mother. She encapsulated something the Royal Family had never encountered before and might never encounter again – a bridge between the huddled masses who still, at this stage, believed in the traditional pomp and ceremony of royalty, and the Royal line themselves. My mother had the Charles & Di wedding memorabilia. She bought into the marriage and was, like many, disappointed to see it begin to break apart.

The Crown brings to bear history that remains powerfully tethered to the world we now live in, to a greater extent than any season before. That adds to the expectation and, ultimately, doubles the disappointment when the end result isn’t quite as excoriating or far reaching as you want it to be.
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Season Reviews, The Crown, TV

THE CROWN (Season 3) reveals the state of the monarchy (TV Review)

Roughly halfway into Peter Morgan’s sprawling potted history of Queen Elizabeth II, you realise The Crown has reached a point of security. After two seasons which made a star out of Claire Foy and gave Netflix perhaps it’s most prestige original property, Season 3 has the self-assured confidence we see Elizabeth, now middle-aged, begin to imbue.

The unique central gimmick of Morgan’s drama was announced at the very beginning – that every two seasons of a projected six, the actors portraying Her Majesty and family would age-up alongside the characters themselves, and Season 3 marks the first instance of this change. Foy truly made Elizabeth her own, essaying with grace a young woman thrust into a role unlike any other on the planet while having to balance her own youth and sexuality with the rigours of her position. Olivia Colman, despite freshly minted with a Best Actress Oscar for portraying another British Queen in The Favourite, always had some big shoes to fill. As you might imagine with an actor of Colman’s character, she does just that. Nor does she attempt to simply replicate Foy’s performance.

To do so in the first place would have been a tactical error as Season 3, which takes place over a 13 year span from 1964 through to Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977, presents a different Queen. The season premiere is called Olding and that forms part of the central theme in Morgan’s show this year: change. The opening scenes of the season nicely mark the actor transition as Elizabeth sees proposals for a new set of stamps, with her face replacing Foy’s; indeed Morgan bookends this nicely in finale Cri de Coeur when she is presented with a photograph from the late 40’s showing Foy and Matt Smith as Prince Philip. “How young we were” Elizabeth wistfully remarks. How young too, in a sense, was her country.

Season 3 is driven by not just Elizabeth’s and her family’s transition into different ages, roles, responsibilities and desires, but that of her country; a United Kingdom weathering economic downturn, socialist revolution, and the ripples of class war which continues the break down of the colonial Establishment on which her family was built. The Crown, halfway in, questions the state of monarchy itself in the modern age.

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Film, Godzilla, Reviews

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS romps over the screen and leaves human drama behind (Film Review)

If the release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters has taught us anything, it’s that the expectations of audiences and critics are a fair distance apart.

This is no great revelation. For every serious reviewer of cinema, you will find two casual cinema-goers pop up to remind them “it’s only a movie”. This is completely fine. Some people just enjoy cinema for the experience and don’t study it too closely, bathing in the drama or spectacle. Others like to dissect, unpick, or place into context. Some, admittedly. simply enjoy trashing a project for their own personal, particular reasons, and often reside in the sketchier corners of online fandom. Ultimately, we enjoy what we enjoy for the reasons we enjoy it, but Godzilla: King of the Monsters struck me as the purest exercise in giving the people what they want, Roman-forum style. It is, in the most primal sense, a monster movie. A movie starring monsters. There is so subtlety, no cloak and dagger subterfuge. You see Godzilla in the first frame. All of him. In his prime.

Compare this to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla, off the back of which King of the Monsters follows, and we could be in different stylistic galaxies. A key complaint from paying punters in 2014 was that we simply didn’t see all that much of, as the Japanese call him, ‘Gojira’. For a film named after the big guy, he was conspicuous by his absence as Edwards attempted to root his film in human drama around which Godzilla appeared as a force of nature, a towering titanic beast it took a significant amount of the film to reveal. Edwards wanted awe in a different manner to King of the Monsters director Michael Dougherty. He wanted to keep us waiting for Godzilla, and make his entrance a moment to take our breath away. For some, this was the wrong approach, and King of the Monsters goes in a very different direction.

King of the Monsters wants you to know, very clearly, that Godzilla and a host of other monsters are what this film is about. The humans are plot devices. It is the monsters who are the real characters.

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Essays, Film

LAST ACTION HERO: A film ahead of and perfectly of its time

Last Action Hero is both ahead of its time and perfectly positioned within the era it was made, such is the paradox of a forgotten curiosity of 1990’s action cinema and the stratospheric career of Arnold Schwartzenegger.

Here’s my story and why I’m writing about Last Action Hero some twenty five years on from its release. I was 11 years old when Last Action Hero was released in cinemas, in the US one week after Steven Spielberg’s decade-defining Jurassic Park. In theory, I was the perfect age to consume a film which is entirely about the youthful obsession of a similarly-aged child, Austin O’Brien’s Danny Madigan, with action adventure cinema. Jurassic Park I badgered my parents to take me to see three times yet I didn’t go anywhere near Last Action Hero. It didn’t even register with me.

It has taken me until age 36 to actually sit down and watch it, and this is after spending at least the last twenty years being an enormous fan of Schwarzenegger’s movies and career. Last Action Hero was always the Arnie film I missed.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×07: ‘You Win or You Die’ (TV Review)

If ever you wanted to point to an early episode of Game of Thrones which would serve as a mission statement for the iconic series to come, outside of Winter Is Coming, you could do worse than point to You Win or You Die. It is, in many senses of the word, a game-changer. The episode firmly establishes the key, central ideological concept at the very heart of George R.R. Martin’s opus, and it’s one we may already have strongly suspected: we are watching a very powerful and very deadly game in progress.

Though it contains a number of extra elements, You Win or You Die can be seen as a clearer successor to The Wolf and the Lion than A Golden Crown was to the developing narrative. It takes many of the political and Machiavellian ideas established in the fifth episode and builds on them, moving the season firmly toward what would constitute a climactic end game which will play out over the final three episodes, depicting in broad strokes the ending of the book A Game of Thrones and leading very clearly into the adaptation of sequel A Clash of Kings, which will form the basis of the second season.

Fates are sealed in this episode with more certainty than they have been for some time, yet the majority of what happens feels inevitable. David Benioff & D.B. Weiss’ script simply brings into focus many more thematic concepts that have been gestating since the season began.

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