Three brief movie reviews

December 27, 2020 • 2:15 pm

I mentioned the new 99-minute movie “Mighty Ira” the other day: it’s a documentary about former ACLU head Ira Glasser.  Here’s the trailer:

I quite liked it, and recommend it if you have any interest in civil liberties. It’s a montage of clips about a diversity of subjects, centered on Glasser’s work with the famous Skokie case of 1977, when the American Nazi party challenged the suburb of Skokie’s denial of their demand to march through the town (Skokie was largely Jewish). The ACLU, defending the Nazis, won, but the brownshirts didn’t march there, doing so in Chicago instead. The footage of these pathetic bigots is entertaining, especially when their Big March in Chicago is drowned out by shouting opponents exercising their right of counter-speech.

What’s worth noticing is that nearly everyone involved with the ACLU back then, including those who defended Nazis, were Jews. They had no love for National Socialism, but they loved civil liberties, and the articulation by Glasser and others of why they felt they had to defend the Nazis by itself makes the movie worth watching. Glasser and most of his ACLU colleagues were really in the organization to defend the civil liberties of blacks, and it’s sad to remember that the blacks and the Jews used to be friends.

But there’s a lot more. The intellectual clashes between William Buckley and Glasser are epic, especially when you realize that they liked each other (you can see Glasser taking the patrician Buckley on his first NYC subway ride).  Likewise, Glasser becomes pals with Ben Stern, a concentration-camp survivor who adamantly fought against the Nazis coming into Skokie. The final scene, in which Stern tells Glasser that he loves him anyway, is a weepy moment. There are bits about the recent trouble in Charlottesville, and a lot about baseball, for Glasser was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan—because of Jackie Robinson.  It wasn’t that Robinson was the first black man to play major-league ball, but simply because he was a world-class player who energized the team and made its fans go nuts. When they moved to Los Angeles, Glasser was bereft.

Anyway, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this movie to everyone, as there are no chase scenes or superheroes, but if you’re into civil liberties and free speech, and want to meet an icon who promulgated those values for many years, watch “Mighty Ira”.


“Mank” is the nickname of the protagonist, Herman Mankiewicz, the screenwriter who shared an Oscar with Orson Welles for the script of “Citizen Kane”. As the trailer below shows, it was filmed in black and white (we need more movies like that), and the cinematography and style hearken back to the Forties.

The topic is about Mank’s struggles to produce a script on short notice, and his battles with Welles for credit. But there’s a lot of narrative about the studio system in Hollywood, and so we also get to see Mank’s battles with Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer (like the movie above, most of the big players were Jewish), as well as his schmoozing (and falling out) with William Randolph Hearst, who of course was one of the inspirations for “Citizen Kane”.

There are two excellent performances here: Gary Oldman’s, who plays Mank (often drunk), and Amanda Seyfried’s, who plays Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress who was the hostess at San Simeon. It’s a testament to Oldman’s versatility that he can transform from Winston Churchill (he won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Winnie in “Darkest Hour”) to a sarcastic and alcoholic screenwriter, completely believable. Do see this movie, and if you don’t believe me, go look at the critics’ reviews at Rotten Tomatoes.


I didn’t know that Sarah Silverman did a serious movie, and of course, being smitten with her, I had to see it. Sure enough, the movie, “I Smile Back“, is five years old, and I hadn’t heard of it. Perhaps that’s for a good reason, for while it was a watchable movie, it wasn’t a great one. It chronicles the degeneration of a seemingly perfect marriage between Silverman and her tolerant husband (they have two kids), with the degeneration due entirely to Silverman’s problems with alcohol, drugs, and depression.  Here’s the trailer:

While the plot is no great shakes, I have to say—and this isn’t because I love her—Silverman gives a really good performance. Perhaps it’s because The Divine Sarah has had her own lifelong struggles with depression, but her portrayal of the misery and malaise of the ailment is absolutely convincing.  If you’re a Silvermanophile like me, I’d recommend the movie, but don’t expect something Oscar-worthy.


Of course all of this is also to induce you to list and say a few words of the movies you’ve seen lately. It’s been a tough year for film, and the last time I was in a theater was to see Ford V. Ferrari (also a good movie). If you’ve seen something good (or bad, and want to warn us off), please comment below.

51 thoughts on “Three brief movie reviews

  1. Interestingly for me when I visited the site I had 3 trilers for what I believe were an Indian Song, a base jump and a science clip. I only saw the actual trailers when I expanded the post to comment on this and they rplaced what I saw on the first page. Did anyone else have this experience?

  2. the famous Skokie case of 1977, when the American Nazi party challenged the suburb of Skokie’s denial of their demand to march through the town

    Is that the case which inspired (checks) Ackroyd and Landis to, ehemm, celebrate the American Nazi, /ehemm, movement ?
    (You can skip the first minute-20 of sloganising in the video.)
    Illinois Nazis! If only they were a joke.

    1. The Blues Brothers was filmed in the summer of 1979. The events of 1977 were still fresh in everyone’s minds. The leader of the Nazis was Frank Collin, son of Max Cohn, a survivor of Dachau. Collin’s grandparents died in the Holocaust. Collin went to prison for child molestation.

      1. Several years prior to that, they had a storefront office in Chicago, selling, among other traditional propaganda, Whiteman comix, even though one of their own ambushed and killed party leader George Lincoln Rockwell, 1967. Recently expelled John Patler was the editor/cartoonist for Whiteman. The young kids running the store didn’t even know that.

  3. Some actors, including some great ones, are always very clearly themselves in every role. Gary Oldman is the opposite — a true chameleon, with an astonishing range.

      1. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Gary Oldman is the man who managed to play George Smiley better than Alec Guinness. ‘Nuff said!

  4. Haven’t seen any memorable films lately but just watched the stunning new Danish detective series ‘The Investigation’. Reminiscent in style and quality to the formidable ‘The Killing’ and ‘The Bridge’ (scandi versions, please!). Television drama does not get any better than this.


    1. I didn’t realize The Killing was based on a Scandinavian show. Is the original of the same name? I couldn’t get into the American version at all and stopped watching after about four or five episodes.

      I loved The Bridge.

      1. “Forbrydelsen” is the original Danish series. I think it has never been made available in DVD form.

        1. Ah, that’s a shame. Netflix used to be a great place to get foreign shows, but their library has dwindled to an absurd degree over the last few years, to be replaced by crappy shows and movies made by Netflix. I almost cancelled my subscription a few months ago, but my parents use it and watch several shows on there.

        2. You can get the dvd, but you need a player that plays other countries than the US. You can get one of those players for @ $30. That’s how I got to watch the 4th season of The Bridge, and I have the 1st season of The Killing/Forbrydelsen waiting to be watched. Another good series is the Swedish Wallander.

          1. Mind if I ask where you got your player? I see them all over Amazon, but I’m wary of their functionality and the people selling them.

          2. Yeah, the Swedish Wallander is much better than the Branagh one.
            A MHz Choice subscription will get you a lot of good European films and series. Finally got seasons 7 and 8 of the terrific French Spiral/Engrenages.

    2. Have you watched Professor T., another Belgian murder/crime investigation series? it’s on PBS Masterpiece which is also bundled with Prof. T. and made available through Amazon Prime. The episodes are excellent and mind-bending, and range from quirky, poignant and sad to the disturbing and hilarious.

  5. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is one of the finest movies I’ve seen recently. Amazing, gut-wrenching performance from Chadwick Boseman and a magnificent portrayal of Ma Rainey by the wonderful Viola Davis.

  6. Mank is excellent. If I had a best-series/movies-seen-this-pandemic list, it would be high on it.
    These are viewed on Netflix and maybe elsewhere:
    The Prom. A musical based on a true story, starring Meryl Streep and James Corden. Bring a hankie. I especially admire how they go pretty deep into the struggles of being accepted while gay.
    The Queens’ Gambit.
    My Octopus Teacher. I will stop bringing this up now.
    The Laundromat.
    Da 5 Bloods.
    The Liberators.

    Now these are not perfect, but I have enjoyed them:
    Safety Not Guaranteed.
    The Haunting of Bly Manor. I think T.H.o. Hill House is better. Its’ on my list.
    You. I was pretty engaged in the first season. Couldn’t get interested in s.2.
    Space Force.
    The Travelers.

  7. I want to watch Mank, as it has Gary Oldman in the lead and Fincher behind the camera, but I’m hesitating because I don’t like the idea behind it. It seems like the story was built largely on the BS articles written by Pauline Kael claiming that Orson Welles had no hand in writing Citizen Kane, and therefore wasn’t nearly the genius force people made him about to be and didn’t contribute to the real genius behind the movie. Her claims were shown to be complete fabrication by multiple sources.

    I never liked Pauline Kael or her writing, even at an early age. It’s always seemed to me that she was one of those critics who thought she was a brilliant intellectual looking down at all the plebs from her ivory tower. And her attempt to steal as much credit for Citizen Kane from Wells as she possibly could really cemented my dislike for her as I read about movies over the years. Why lie about something like that? Why try to destroy someone’s legacy? I haven’t read her work in years now, but I have no desire to return to it.

    /end tangent

    1. Pauline Kael had a vast knowledge of movies and was a terrific prose stylist, inspiring an entire generation of film critics, the so-called “Paulettes.” But what she lacked was any sense of judgment.

      Woody Allen, many of whose movies she championed, had her clocked correctly in his quote from the introduction to the book Orson Welles wrote with Peter Bogdanovich:

      She has everything that a great critic needs except judgment. And I don’t mean that facetiously. She has great passion, terrific wit, wonderful writing style, huge knowledge of film history, but too often what she chooses to extol or fails to see is very surprising.

      Still, you should see Mank; it’s a wonderful film.

      1. I wonder if Allen wrote that after Kael turned against his movies. They were friends until Kael began panning his late 70s work. Allen is really faulting her for not following the consensus in her judgments, but that is the first requirement of a good critic.

        Kael was wrong about Welles having no influence on the script, but her essay “Raising Kane” is still worth reading for its other insights into the film and Hollywood. I never got an Ivory Tower vibe from Kael’s work: she wrote in a conversational style and displayed far more passion for films and popular culture than many of her peers.

        1. Kael’s conversational tone was key to her terrific prose style. I always found it incongruous that Kael wrote for the stodgy New Yorker, while her leading contemporary rival among film critics, Andrew Sarris (who was a more stodgy stylist), wrote for the more casual Village Voice.

  8. Late 1930s, 1940 movies with strong/memorable women lead characters:

    “His Girl Friday” – 1940 – Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant. Russell is ace reporter for the newspaper edited by Grant who is also the ex-husband. Her personal plans are pre-empted to cover a fast-breaking story. Be alert to the social commentary and fast dialog with characters often talking over each other. Picture quality on Amazon Prime version is terrible.

    “My Man Godfrey” – 1936 – William Powell, Carole Lombard. Lots of moralizing in this depression era movie. Lombard is more immature and goofy than Russell’s strong character. But she knows what she wants and it’s Powell. He’s from a rich family but is temporarily down and out. He “buttles” for a wealthy but superficial family and becomes an agent of change. Also Lombard wins him in the end. Powell better known for “Thin Man” films.

    “Bringing Up Baby” – 1938 – Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant. Hepburn, like Lombard, sees the man she wants and goes after him — relentlessly. Here, Grant is a scientist who gets dragged into Hepburn’s family setting which typifies the “screwball comedy” pace and characters. Howard Hawks directed this film and His Girl Friday.

    1. There are many memorable female lead characters in movies from the 30s and 40s — especially in the “screwball comedy” genre — but my favorite is from one you referenced: The Thin Man , and its sequels. I love how the plots are really just a framing device for us to enjoy the wonderful drunken banter between Nick and Nora.

    2. An excellent list. Bringing up Baby is one of my favourite films, though Susan (Hepburn) reminds me of an old girlfriend. I have none of the charm, class, or looks of Grant, though.

  9. While I enjoyed Mank(particularly its retro style), I was really hoping it would be more about the making of Citizen Kane.

  10. If we’re recommending movies, I’d like to put forth a documentary from a few years ago called The Biggest Little Farm. It’s about restorative agriculture but it’s also a very personal story.

  11. Since someone mentioned Scandinavian television above, I’d like to recommend the Danish film Flame and Citron, about two men who fought in the Danish underground resistance against the Nazis. It’s brilliantly acted and directed, with a gripping script and deep themes of doubt, betrayal, and the often morally grey area people can end up occupying during wartime, even when they’re fighting for the right cause.

    And while I’m on the subject of foreign films, I’d like to note my love of modern Korean cinema. Most people know about Oldboy (directed by Park Chan-Wook, not the garbage Spike Lee remake), but there are many other phenomenal flicks, most in the same genre.

    The other two films in Park Chan-Wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy,” Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance
    I Saw the Devil
    The Man From Nowhere
    Hwayi: Monster Boy
    Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War
    A Bittersweet Life
    The Good, The Bad,The Weird
    The Handmaiden
    JSA: Joint Security Area

    Directors to look for: Park Chan-Wook, Kim Jee-Woon, Bong Joon-Ho, Na Hong-Jin, and others I can’t think of right now.

  12. The Divine Sarah (I share your opinion of her) also appeared in a supporting role in “Take This Waltz,” which i highly recommend.

  13. Gary Oldman is always worth watching, even in otherwise terrible films. He’s in some of my favourite guilty pleasure movies!

    1. I agree. While the new Netflix series Bridgerton is shallow and silly in many parts, I found it to be fun and titillating – sheer escapism. I enjoyed the period costumes but was (still) infuriated by the oppressive, misogynistic societal norms of yore (don’t know what I expected).

  14. I prefer my period pieces authentic. In the trailers, there seemed to be an inordinate number of highly placed non-white characters and the dialog didn’t sound like how I imagine people talked in that place and time. I suppose they have trouble doing authentic period pieces nowadays or risk the dismay of Woke viewers.

  15. I am inclined to suspect one reason Welles’ first movie “Citizen Kane” remained one of his best is due to Mankiewicz’s screenwriting.
    Gary Oldman in his early days convincingly played Beethoven (Immortal Beloved), Lee Harvey Oswald (Oliver Stone’s JFK), and Dracula (in the Coppola film). The last was especially remarkable in that Coppola had Dracula always look youngish shortly after his blood feasts, and then aging a lot over the day until he fed again.

    1. You just named one of my guilty pleasure movies. We got Gary Oldman as a superb Prince Vlad, but then there was Keanu Reeves’ Jonathan “I know where the bastard sleeps” Harker. I wish this lopsidedness was the worst of it.

      I still love the movie, but I don’t even attempt to justify why.

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