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In this week’s selection of the latest films made available to streaming, expect some reflection on the injustices of Hollywood cinema. Most prominent is a Netflix original with a lot of prestige behind its name: the latest feature directed by David Fincher, Mank, which uses its account of the making of Citizen Kane into a deconstruction of the gilded cage of Hollywood.
Another film that should be of interest in the same sense is Cheryl Dunye’s groundbreaking film The Watermelon Woman, a film about Hollywood’s exclusion of Black people and the eventual need for Black people to create their own history through fiction, due to the annihilation of that history by the government. In other, perhaps lighter revisionist tales, there’s the Heath Ledger-starring A Knight’s Tale, which turns the writing of Chaucer into an anachronistic adventure comedy, complete with a soundtrack tailored from classic rock songs.
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Mank - Netflix
David Fincher’s first feature film in six years (during which time he’s produced the likes of Mindhunter for Netflix) feels like something of an odd choice for him, a look into golden age Hollywood that, on paper, would fit the bill for awards season bait; an epic about the magic of movies told with nostalgic texture. But Mank, penned by the director’s late father Jack Fincher, is resistant to such romanticising of the past, and digs in deep into the idea Hollywood as a gilded cage, and even literal propaganda for regressive right wing politics.
Perhaps the film’s strongest element is seeing the politics and dynamics of the industry become muddled through Mank’s alchohol-addled perspective, his scramble to finish writing Citizen Kane coloured by his frustration and contempt for these people. The film is a far cry from the lurid airport novel adaptations that Fincher has made his name on, and will undoubtedly frustrate many who see the Welles/Mank feud as character assassination of the latter, but it’s hypnotising delirium all-in-all.
Also new on Netflix: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Where The Wild Things Are
The Watermelon Woman - MUBI
Cheryl Dunye’s feature The Watermelon Woman is often referred to via its own historical standing, as the first feature film directed by an “out” Black lesbian. It is of course, a significant work regardless, a film that pointedly examines the kind of historical exclusion that would make it take as long as until 1996 for such a film to be made. It’s an incisive and funny mixture of documentary style footage and Gen X hangout drama, following Cheryl (Dunye), a young Black lesbian who works a day job in a video store, while attempting to make a film about a Black actress from the 1930s known for playing the stereotypical “mammy” roles that would be relegated to Black actresses during that period.
It’s delightful in its mixture of these genres and styles as it seeks to reclaim unheard stories and voices, and feels anarchic in almost every possible way as it confronts those who made this erasure possible – especially in a scene where a (real) culture critic more or less self-immolates in an unintentionally hilarious stream-of-consciousness rant about how the mammy figure “isn’t really that bad”.
Also new on MUBI: Faith, Tripping With Nils Frahm
A Knight’s Tale — Prime Video
The age of that source material allows A Knight’s Tale to have a lot of fun with its premise – remixing historical medieval drama with modern inflections, and running a little wild with the inevitable changes that come with translating such an old text to screen. One such change is the addition of Chaucer himself, played by Paul Bettany as an egotistical writer and wrestling-style ring announcer (but for jousting). He believes he is very clever and more intelligent than others. He has a terrible gambling habit, losing everything from his money to his clothes.
Perhaps what’s most refreshing about A Knight’s Tale is how honest these anachronisms feel. In Roger Ebert’s review of the film, the critic points out a statement made by director Brian Helgeland regarding the film’s score, which contains the likes of Bowie and Queen, saying that Helgeland "pointed out that an orchestral score would be equally anachronistic, since orchestras hadn't been invented in the 1400s”. It’s overall a hell of a good time, and appropriately light weekend watching.
Also new on Prime Video: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Da Vinci Code
System Crasher - BFI Player
Director Nora Fingscheidt’s intense drama about Germany’s child and welfare system takes its title from a phrase that supposedly defines one that is so anarchic and uncontrollable that there becomes no place for them: not in foster or group homes or any kind of program.
The film follows one such child, Benni (played by Helena Zengel,fierce and abrasive) while seeking the affection that she has been deprived of, and desperately craves. Fingscheidt’s filmmaking is immensely sympathetic, so much so that the innate loneliness behind Benni’s actions are always clear, more tragic than they are aggravating.
Also new on BFI Player: Prevenge, Only God Forgives
Watch a trailer for Mank