MANK (2020)

December 3, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Just a writer.” The line made me laugh. How many times have writers not received the recognition they deserved, or were underestimated, only to have their words create a lasting impact? Hollywood often likes to portray writers as socially-awkward, loner types who rarely contribute much during conversations. Not this time. The subject is Oscar winning screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, who was as quick with a dinner table zinger as he was writing the script to CITIZEN KANE (1941) while bedridden.

More than 20 years in the works, this is director David Fincher’s first film since GONE GIRL (2014), and it’s based on a screenplay written by his late father, Jack Fincher. Dad receives sole writing credit here, though David and producer Eric Roth (Oscar winner for FORREST GUMP, 1994) admit to some polishing. It’s a film seemingly designed for us film nerds, but likely entertaining and interesting enough for expanded appeal. CITIZEN KANE is often regarded as the “best” movie of all-time, though the origin of the film is much debated. We do know that struggling RKO Pictures gave 24 year old wunderkind Orson Welles free reign over his first film, and the result was something quite special. Director Fincher’s film offers up three distinct aspects here: a look at Mankiewicz’s writing process for ‘Kane’, some background on Mankiewicz’s career, and a somewhat fictionalized dissection of 1930s Hollywood politics.

Oscar winner Gary Oldman (DARKEST HOUR, 2017) stars as Herman J “Mank” Mankiewicz, an international correspondent-turned NYC cultural critic-turned playwright-turned screenwriter. Herman was the older brother of Joseph L Mankiewicz, a four time Oscar winning writer-director (ALL ABOUT EVE, 1950), and grandfather to Ben Mankiewicz, a well-known host of Turner Classic Movies. Herman was also renowned as a boozer and gambler, and in 1940 (where this movie begins), he was a bedridden mess recovering from a car accident. Herman was part of the sphere of the infamous Algonquin Round Table, and in most of this film, he talks like he’s still at one of those gatherings.

Mank is taken to a desolate ranch house in Victorville, California, along with his assistant Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), his nurse (Monika Gossman) and his handler John Houseman (Sam Troughton). Orson Welles (Tom Burke) has given Mank 60 days to finish the script, and his only guidance seems to be “write what you know”, and don’t drink. The result was a controversial, yet brilliant script that Welles and his crew (Oscar winning Cinematographer Gregg Toland, Editor Robert Wise, a 4-time Oscar winner) turned into a classic film that still holds up 80 years later.

We immediately start seeing flashbacks, as noted by old style on-screen typing. Ten years prior, Mank was the Head Writer at Paramount, where his staff included Ben Hecht, George S Kaufman, and Charles Lederer … writers whose work would later include NOTORIOUS (1946), multiple Marx Brothers movies, and GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953), respectively. Lederer was also the nephew of starlet Marion Davies (played here by Amanda Seyfried), who was the long time mistress of media mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Are you starting to see how this wicked web all fits together? Of course, Hearst was the model for Charles Foster Kane in Welles’ classic movie, while Ms. Davies was supposedly the inspiration for Kane’s wife, Susan. Other key players in these flashbacks are Producer David O Selznick (Toby Moore), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley, son of Oscar winner Ben), MGM founder Louis B Mayer (Arliss Howard), Mank’s brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey), and Mank’s wife “Poor” Sarah (Tuppence Middleton).

Director Fincher’s masterful film features a couple of standout sequences. The first involves the initial meeting between Mank and Hearst, while Marion Davies is filming a scene on the grounds of San Simeon (Xanadu in CITIZEN KANE). Rapid fire dialogue, multiple characters, and terrific editing with Mank keeping pace as Hearst overlooks the filming. Much later there is a scene following Mank and Marion as they stroll through the manicured gardens with the nearby exotic animals on display. The scene is fascinating to watch, while also reinforcing the kindred spirits of Mank and Marion – both talented, yet not quite allowed in the “club”. Beyond those two sequences, we also get a quite funny segment where Mank and his Paramount writers are improvising a pitch to Selznick and director Josef von Sternberg, plus a telegram sent by Mank to Lederer that states, “Millions to be made here and your only competition is idiots” (a sentiment some believe still holds true today).

Quite a bit of the film is focused on Hollywood politics of the 1930s, both in the studios and nationally. In particular, the 1934 Governor’s race focuses on the campaign of writer and socialist Upton Sinclair (played by Bill Nye, the Science Guy), and the concerted efforts by Hearst and studio capitalists to prevent Sinclair from being elected. The symmetry and contrasts of modern day Hollywood and politics cannot be overlooked. Also made abundantly clear is the disconnect between studio heads, directors, and writers – quite the mishmash of disrespect.

The brilliance of Fincher’s movie is that it can be relished from multiple perspectives. Is Mank attempting to salvage a near-dead career or is he settling a grudge against Hearst? Did Welles intend to hold firm to Mank’s contract and prevent him from receiving a screenwriting credit? And then there is the filmmaking side. Superb performances from Oldman and Seyfried highlight the terrific cast. It’s filmed in black and white by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt (“Mindhunter”), but not the razor-sharp images we are accustomed to these days, rather soft and hazy in keeping with the look of the times. The production design from Donald Graham Burt takes a couple of viewings to fully appreciate, and the music from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is spot on, as usual. Even the opening credits provide nostalgia, as does the 1942 Academy Awards ceremony, which neither Mank nor Welles attended. Netflix delivers another winner, and one likely to receive awards consideration.

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THAT GOOD NIGHT (2020)

November 4, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Art imitating life is something we’ve not only grown accustomed to, but also something we expect. In this case it’s the bittersweet final performance of the great John Hurt. A terminally ill man taking on the role of a terminally ill man. Director Eric Styles is working from a script by Charles Savage that was adapted from N.J. Crisp’s stage production. It’s easy to see how this could be a powerful live show, but the stunning home in Portugal where most of the film is set, makes for a pleasant transition to the screen.

John Hurt stars as Ralph Maitland, a self-centered, highly successful screenwriter, who may be an even more proficient curmudgeon. He lives in a beautiful home with his younger wife Anna (Sofia Helin, “The Bridge”), who was once his nurse. Ralph receives the dreaded prognosis at his doctor appointment. Rather than tell his wife, he proceeds with ‘getting his affairs in order’ and summoning home his estranged son Michael (Max Brown, “The Royals”). Michael was born to Ralph’s first wife, and he is also a writer.

Ralph’s true colors shine when Michael shows up with his girlfriend Cassie (Erin Richards, “Gotham”). Although Cassie is pretty tough, Ralph devolves from curmudgeon to downright churlish. His rudeness exceeds the bounds of palatable during dinner at a local restaurant, sending Michael and Cassie scampering off before appetizers. Anna is embarrassed by her husband’s actions, but he just continues on with his process – a process that includes contacting “The Society”, which facilitates Euthanasia.

A man in an impeccable white linen suit appears in the doorway of Ralph’s office. He’s only referred to as “The Visitor”, and his played by Charles Dance, Mr. Hurt’s co-star in the underrated 1987 film WHITE MISCHIEF. The conversations between Ralph and The Visitor deliver the best dialogue in the film, and likely the deepest since it forces Ralph to face his mortality and the impact and finality of his decision. It’s here where Ralph’s “low boredom threshold” is mentioned, and quickly minimized by The Visitor.

The film is a relatively simple look at a complex topic, and it also highlights the importance of reconciling with family members, and discovering a reason to keep living. The weakness here is that we only scratch the surface of Anna and Michael, and even what turned Ralph into the man he is. We get a quick glimpse of Ralph interacting with Ronaldo (Noah Jupe, HONEY BOY, A QUIET PLACE), the housekeeper’s son, in a manner that makes us believe he has regrets on his poor parenting during Michael’s childhood. Cinematographer Richard Stoddard takes full advantage of the beautiful scenery, as well as the uncomfortable interactions amongst the family.

John Hurt died in 2017, just 3 weeks after filming was complete. He had a remarkable 55 year acting career, including Oscar nominations for his work in MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978) and THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980). Of course he will always be remembered for his iconic chestburster moment in ALIEN (1979). He compiled more than 200 acting credits, and some of my other favorite John Hurt characters are found in: 1984 (1984), OWNING MAHONEY (2003), TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011), and the voice of rabbit Hazel in WATERSHIP DOWN (1978). Dylan Thomas’ 1947 poem plays a key role in this film (and title), and the sentiment also captures the spirit of John Hurt: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

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ME BEFORE YOU (2016)

June 2, 2016

me before you Greetings again from the darkness. Who doesn’t enjoy a good cry in a dark movie theatre? The first feature film from director Thea Sharrock is taken directly from the tear-jerker novel by Jojo Meyes (who also wrote the screenplay). Although I try to avoid using the term very often, it’s very much a by-the-numbers chick flick … complete with the heart-of-gold working class girl trying her best to “save” the handsome rich guy to whom life has dealt a tough hand. For fans of the book and the genre, it should deliver the desired effect … the studio even provided movie logo tissues for the screening.

For most of us, the effectiveness of this type of movie comes down to the characters. Luisa is the effervescent working class girl hired as a personal assistant to the extremely wealthy quadriplegic Will Traynor. Emilia Clarke (“Game of Thrones”) does everything in her power to make us (and Will Traynor) like Luisa. To describe her as optimistic is like saying Eric Clapton can play guitar. Calling her perky would be like saying Donald Trump has hair. Both statements are true, but hardly capture the totality of reality. In stark contrast, Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) purposefully underplays Will … the one time cliff-diving, James Bond birthday video type now confined to a wheelchair.

Lu is a constant toothy smile complemented by expressive and active eyebrows that somehow overshadow her chatty bedside manner, and kaleidoscopic and geometric clothes and shoes … all encompassed with an ever-bouncy step that would make Tigger envious. Lu mostly shares the screen with Will and the personal nurse and therapist Nathan, played by Stephen Peacocke. The camera certainly loves all three of these faces, and director Sharrock wisely adds Janet McTeer and Charles Dance as Will’s parents. They bring a regal presence to what otherwise could have played a bit too cutesy.

Despite the heavy dose of “awww”, the story deserves credit for touching on the “right to die” or “dying with dignity” debate. While those closest to Will selfishly proclaim they don’t understand his plan to head to Switzerland, it’s Nathan who says it best … ‘who am I to judge’. While a full on discussion of the topic would be out of place here, the film does a nice job of not shying away from the process.

Other recognizable faces in the cast include Jenna Coleman (“Doctor Who”) as Lu’s sister and confidante, and Matthew Lewis (Harry Potter series) as Lu’s fitness freak boyfriend who isn’t very understanding … of either Lu or her job. There’s also an odd but welcome wedding cameo from Joanna Lumley. My biggest issue with the story is that I just never understood how or when Lu fell so deeply in love with Will. Sure, I get the appeal of the castle, the concertos, and the tropical vacations, but where was the real personal connection? Was it simply that she thought she could charm Will into changing his mind on the big decision?  That’s not really love. Another piece that’s difficult to take … the numerous musical interludes seemingly designed to make sure viewers are in the proper state of melancholy. There was another segment that I found not just ironic, but actually annoying; however, discussion of the “Live boldly” advice would give away the film’s ending … something I’m not sure even matters since it’s made pretty clear throughout, but it still goes against my movie code.

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PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES (2016)

February 4, 2016

PPZ Greetings again from the darkness. For those high school Literature teachers struggling to get their students to embrace the classics from writers like Jane Austen, this movie won’t help much. However, chances are good that those same students will enjoy this blending of 19th century British class warfare with “The Walking Dead” – likely one of their favorite shows.  The zombie apocalypse has landed in the middle of Austen’s prim and proper story, including the repressed attraction between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy.

Anyone expecting the serious undertones of Ms. Austen’s1813 novel will be disappointed … but the title should have provided a pretty solid hint. While her characters and general story line act as a structure here, it’s really based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s YA hit novel … delivering zombie battles and often zany humor. Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) directs his own adapted screenplay and seems to really be having a great time – right along with his talented cast. The sets, costumes, dialogue and fight scenes work together to create an unusual movie experience that will generate plenty of laughs while not dwelling on the zombies or violence (it is PG-13). Expect most critics to destroy this one because it’s made simply for fun, not for art.

Of course, any Pride and Prejudice spin-off (even one with zombies) must pay particular attention to Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. It turns out that Elizabeth and her four sisters are highly trained warriors raised to survive against the undead. It’s even clearer for Mr. Darcy as he is billed as a zombie hunter and protector of Mr. Bingley, the rich bachelor hooked on Jane Bennett. Things get muddled by the devious Mr. Wickham, a focused Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and especially the flamboyant fop Parson Collins. The interactions between these characters bounce between loyalty, romantic attraction, emotional turmoil and hand-to-hand combat … with enough comedic elements that most viewers will find plenty of opportunities to laugh.

The talented cast is all in. They play it mostly straight (with one major exception) to achieve the balance between somber and silly. Lily James (“Downton Abbey”) and Sam Riley (On the Road, 2012) are both fun to watch as Elizabeth and Darcy. They are the film’s best fighters … both with swords and words. Bella Heathcoate (Dark Shadows, 2012) is “the pretty one” Jane, who is wooed by Douglas Booth (Noah, 2014) as Mr. Bingley. Lena Headey (“Game of Thrones”) makes an impression in her limited screen time as an eye-patched Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Jack Huston (“Boardwalk Empire”) is well cast as Wickham. Screen veterans Charles Dance and Sally Phillips take on the role of parents to the five Bennett daughters, but it’s Matt Smith (“Dr Who”), who turns the film on its ear with his unconventional twist on the oddball Parson Collins, who pretty much steals each of his scenes. He had those in the theatre laughing out loud more than a few times.

Pity is the word that comes to mind for any young man who takes these Bennett girls to the prom … or more likely to one of the societal balls. The weapons hidden under their formal gowns offer fair warning to zombies and handsy suitors alike. It’s this element of strong women (physically and emotionally) that might even allow Ms. Austen to appreciate what’s happened to her characters … were she alive to see it.

Even though the film offers plenty of fun with laughs and action and romance, let’s hope it doesn’t kick off a new zombie-adaptation trend. Here are a few titles that we hope never see the big screen: Sense and Sensibilities and Zombies, War and Peace and Zombies, Crime and Punishment and Zombies, The Old Zombie and the Sea, Wuthering Zombies, Romeo and Juliet and Zombies, and Alice’s Adventure in Zombieland.

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VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN (2015)

November 24, 2015

victor frankenstein Greetings again from the darkness. If a filmmaker is going to mess with the classics, there are two paths of creativity from which to choose: stay true to the original, or put a new spin on it. In this case, the classics in question are the nearly 200 year old novel from Mary Shelley (1818) and the nearly 85 year old movie from James Whale (1931). The filmmakers doing the messing are director Paul McGuigan (Lucky Number Slevin) and screenwriter Max Landis (son of director John). The spin they chose was (in theory) to tell the story from the perspective of Igor, the loyal assistant to Dr. Frankenstein.

It’s an interesting approach, but one that immediately presents a problem … since the title they chose was not “Igor”, but rather Victor Frankenstein. The film does begin with Igor’s backstory in the circus as a hunchbacked clown/amateur doctor, and the character does provide some early and late narration. The conundrum stems from the fact that pretty much everything else in the movie is centered on the mad scientist, rather than the skilled apprentice/partner.

Daniel Radcliffe plays Igor and James McAvoy plays Victor Frankenstein (not Fron-kin-steen, in a nod to Mel Brooks), and both actors seem to be doing everything possible to bring energy and enthusiasm to a movie that can’t seem to decide if it’s a reboot or a reimagination or simply an origin story. Radcliffe effectively uses his physicality as the circus clown who is so mistreated and misunderstood, and McAvoy is such a hyper-active mad scientist that I’m sure his fellow actors many times were inclined to advise “say it, don’t spray it”.  McAvoy does seem to be having a grand old time playing the brilliant yet unhinged young doctor-to-be, and to his credit takes a much different approach than Colin Clive when he gets to the infamous line “It’s ALIVE!”

The best parts of the movie are the intricate and amazing sets, the monster himself (albeit too brief), and the expert use of classical music and film score. The circus sets are colorful and active, while Frankenstein’s soap factory home/laboratory is fascinating and creative, and the final Scotland castle on a cliff is breath-taking. Pulleys, chains and cranks are everywhere … as is an incredible amount of body parts, organs and fluids.

After a very well done circus opening, we are jarred with a seemingly out of place action sequence involving a slo-motion chase and fight scene that seems to be attempting to mimic some of the recent Sherlock Holmes movie stunts. Here they are unwelcome and ruin the flow. Another aspect that seems forced and unnecessary is a romantic interlude between Igor and a trapeze artist (played by Jessica Brown Findlay). It feels like an add-on to remind us that it’s supposed to be Igor’s story. Additionally, Andrew Scott plays an intriguing Scotland Yard Inspector who is every bit as obsessed with his faith-based beliefs as Victor is with his science-has-no-bounds stance. A story told from the Inspector’s perspective might have worked, but instead it comes across as another add-on. Another add-on is the filthy rich and very devious fellow med student (played by Freddie Fox) who agrees to fund the experiments, but mostly the character is an after-thought necessary to move the plot along. Wasted is the always menacing Charles Dance, who has but one scene as Victor’s strongly disapproving daddy.

A combination of the romance, minimal role of Igor in the grand finale, the medical school bumbling, the clunky Inspector involvement, and the all too brief monster appearance makes the film all but impossible for viewers to connect. They tell us twice “You know the story … a crack of lightning, a mad genius, and an unholy creation”, but the reality is, the fact that we know the story, makes this one all the more disappointing. It’s fun to look at, but is lacking the depth and soul that has allowed Shelley’s book to stand up over two centuries.

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THE IMITATION GAME (2014)

December 26, 2014

Imitation Game Greetings again from the darkness. This year’s holiday movie season has presented us with three very different war-based films – each a potential Oscar contender, and each with its own life lesson.  Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (the excellent Headhunters, 2011) brings Andrew Hodges’ biographical book  to the screen in the form of the remarkable and true story of Alan Turing, the man credited by many (including Winston Churchill) for helping win WWII.

Alan Turing was a brilliant mathematician and cryptoanalyst. He was also homosexual. Celebrated for his work in helping Great Britain crack the German’s “Enigma” messages, he was also persecuted (through chemical castration) for his homosexuality. His suicide at age 41 (1954) was the likely result of his “treatment” during an era when such “unacceptable” behavior overshadowed any and all mental genius.

The film utilizes Turing’s 1951 police interrogation by a sympathetic and curious detective (Rory Kinnear) as a framing device for the three significant time periods of his life. We see Turing as a bullied schoolboy (played by Alex Lawther) discovering the early signs of his own brilliance, as well as his first love. Most significantly, we witness Turing’s work with the Hut 8 team at Bletchley Park as they worked on complex code-breaking; and finally we see the remnants of a broken man, bathed in solitude and work, who has no real place in society.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives an astounding performance as Alan Turing. We cannot take our eyes off of him, despite his Asperger’s-type social awkwardness. Cumberbatch manages to expertly capture each extreme emotion that befalls Turing, not the least of which is the frustration of the genius, when lesser minds are unable to follow his vision. Some of the best scenes are of Turing’s confrontations with a Royal Navy Commander (perfectly played by Charles Dance), and of course, the critical moments with the other members of his code-breaking team (including Matthew Goode and Keira Knightley).

There are so many aspects to Turing’s story: his impact on ending the war, how society treats true genius, his isolated childhood and final years, the extreme lack of civil rights for homosexuals of the time, and how his work on “Christopher” led to the development of computers. The second half of the film certainly presents the moral quandary, and the performance of Cumberbatch as a tortured genius overpowers any clichés that might creep in. Alexandre Desplat’s piano and strings score is a nice compliment without ever becoming overbearing, and the use of actual war newsreels adds just enough reminder of what the mission was for this group of geeks (today’s terminology).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are interested in how brains, not just brawn, can impact a war OR you want to see one of the best performances of the year by an actor in a lead role

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting WWII battlefield reenactments

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