Mank

‘This is the business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory’

A proposal – how much you enjoy a film and how much you appreciate it can provide distinctly different answers. David Fincher return to the big screen, 6 years after Gone Girl, is the epitome of this. It’s already something of a hard sell, a film following screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz‘s tumultuous development of Orson Welles‘ iconic 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane. Although having watched Citizen Kane isn’t a requirement or prerequisite, prior knowledge does help certain narrative beats and jokes land. (If 119 minutes of classic cinema doesn’t appeal, The Simpsons parody ‘Rosebud’ from the show’s fifth season is one of the finest episodes it’s ever made.)

We open on Mank’s present day in 1940, with an injured and rather-down-on-his-luck Mank (Gary Oldman) pitching up to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. He’s there to write a script for new Hollywood Wonder Kid Orson Welles (Tom Burke) and he’s only got 60 days to do it, with two assistants (Lily Collins and Monika Gossmann) to aid him and decades worth of issues to get in his way. The main narrative tension is the rather age-old trope of struggling writer battling his demons – the fact we know he manages it as Citizen Kane is an actual film that exists (and is regularly voted the Greatest Film Of All Time in industry polls) does slightly undercut proceedings. Instead the drama comes from his past, the things and battles he has faced in his past that have lead him to his now – bedridden and determined to write a scathing take down of media baron William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Even if it means hurting close friend, and Heart’s lover, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) in the process – not to mention destroying his own reputation and any hope of a career.

It’s clear from the outset that this is a passion project for Fincher, with the screenplay itself having been written by his father (who passed away in 2003). Every frame feels personal, as if there’s a direct link between what is being told and the story behind it. Visually how that story is told is spectacular, the cinematography has such wondrous depth and full of cigarette-tinted sumptuous. The soundtrack, by long-time collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is moody and atmospheric – superbly enhancing the paranoia and uncertainty that plagued 1930 and 40s Hollywood, with concerns over Hitler’s rise in Germany and the homegrown fears surrounding socialism, which would go onto leading to an actual Hollywood blacklist in the late 40s. The cast mirror this tone perfectly – with Oldman disappearing into the role as the likeable but hugely flawed writer, Seyfried delivering a femme fatale-esque dame with a steely edge and a career-finest Dance as the elusive tycoon. Burke also deserves a mention for being able to capture a young and righteously indignant Welles so perfectly with not-that-much screen time.

While there are some really great scenes here, they feel too-much like a patchwork pastiche to the work that inspired. Just as with Citizen Kane, the flashbacks are used to flesh out our main character – in a search to both expose faults but also create empathy – some are more interesting or purposeful seeming that others. But the problem is it’s nigh-on impossible to form an attachment to any of these characters. Following them around is entertaining enough, but there’s something of a block between us and them that leaves the viewer feeling cold. There’s also an unevenness about the film’s tone, shifting between drama and comedy of sorts with little prep or transition time. It’s as if it’s not quite sure what it wants to be, beyond a love letter to Golden Hollywood. (Which in turn just made me want to dig out Hail Caesar (2016))

Mank is going to be the kind of film that has a limited audience, but that audience will be ardent and love it dearly. That audience will be enamoured with it’s swoony yet intellectual take on cinematic myth. The rest may just struggle with a film that isn’t quite sure what it is, other than a dense and slow-burn meditative biopic.

[3/5 stars]

Mank is out in selected UK cinemas now and on Netflix worldwide from Friday 4th December.

Something-To-Watch Saturday #9

You know the drill. It’s November, it’s dark at 4pm and the weather is rubbish. It’s the second weekend of Lockdown 2: The Second Cummings (or goings, amiright?!?) You want some movies to watch and escape in. I’m happy to provide with 7 here, and 7 more in each of these. That’s 63 to choose from, that’s how good I am to you. #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7 and #8.

Adult Life Skills (2016 – 96 mins – Netflix & Amazon Prime)

Anna (Jodie Whittaker) is stuck: she’s approaching 30 and living like a hermit in her mum’s garden shed, avoiding fully living her life due to the fact that she is crippled by the loss of her twin brother. A week before her birthday, her mother (Lorraine Ashbourne) sets her an ultimatum – move out of the shed and move on with life. Soon she is entangled with a troubled eight year old boy obsessed with Westerns, and the local real estate agent (Brett Goldstein) whose awkward interpersonal skills continually undermine his attempts to seduce her. The feature debut of writer-director Rachel Tunnard, this is a such a charming bittersweet British indie. Just delightful.

Long Shot (2019 – 125 mins – Netflix)

This week’s underseen romcom is a fairly recent one. I last rewatched this in April, during Lockdown 1, and I found myself craving the considerate and empathetic political career of main character Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) in her run for the presidency, and the really positive and well-balanced burgeoning relationship she has with journalist Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen). I genuinely could write an entire essay on their wonderful relationship and how he supports her & her career. Romantic and so so funny.

The 40-Year-Old Version (2020 – 123 mins – Netflix)

Another gem that Netflix plonked on the shelf rather than give it the fanfare it deserves. Radha (Radha Blank, who also writes and directs) is a down-on-her-luck NY playwright, who is desperate for a breakthrough before 40. Reinventing herself as rapper RadhaMUSPrime, she vacillates between the worlds of Hip Hop and theater in order to find her true voice. Intimate yet epic, scathing yet endearing – a gem that truly sparkles if you give it the chance it deserves.

Animals (2019 – 109 mins – Amazon Prime)

Based on the book of the same name by  Emma Jane Unsworth (who also wrote this screenplay), Animals is the story of best friends Laura (Holliday Grainger) and Tyler (Alia Shawkat) whose party-loving lifestyle gets tempered by Laura’s engagement to Jim (Fra Fee), disolving their friendship in the process. A beautiful, consistently funny yet devastating, mediation on modern love and friendship.

Perfect 10 (2020 – 83 mins – BBC iplayer)

One of the consequences of having a blockbuster-free summer (Tenet aside) was that independent cinema took over our screens, even if they didn’t get the large audiences they deserve. This film is the perfect example of one of those films you probably missed and need to catch-up on. 14-year-old Leigh (Frankie Box) is an aspiring teenager gymnast’s whose world is turned upside down with the arrival of the half-brother she never knew she had. Box’s debut performance is captivating and so full of depth in a wonderfully-told bittersweet story.

The Post (2017 – 116 mins – All4)

A cover-up spanning four U.S. Presidents pushes the country’s first female newspaper publisher (Meryl Streep) and her editor (Tom Hanks) to join an unprecedented battle between press and government. Another film that may resonate that bit deeper due to events of recent months/weeks/days, this is the cinematic equivalent of sitting in a really comfy leather tub chair with a dram of whiskey, a cigar and some comfy slippers. Steven Spielberg at his most solid historical best.

Dark Waters (2019 – 126 mins – Amazon Prime)

I’ll be honest, it’s only as I’m writing these brief comments that I’ve started to see an unintended link between some of these films. Dark Waters is about a corporate defence attorney (Mark Ruffalo) takes on an environmental lawsuit against a chemical company that exposes a lengthy history of pollution. It too will have an even greater resonance around now, seeing capitalism and it’s destructive influences. A fantastic central performance by Ruffalo, this is a film that will haunt you for a long while after. So now I’m going to cheer myself up and listen to this. See you next week….

Something-To-Watch Saturday #5

Are you new around here? Then let me catch you up. Every Saturday I’ll be publishing a list of 7 movie suggestions of films from various streaming sites, saving you time and decision-making by helping you decide what to watch. Like what you see, then just leave a comment. Want even more suggestions? Check out issues #1, #2, #3 and #4.

The Princess Bride (1987 – 98 mins – Amazon Prime)

To start with, I’m chucking out the big guns. My favourite film of all-time. If you know me, you know this fact already – you’ve probably heard me harp on about it enough. A film that is as funny as it is charming as it is romantic. This is a film perfect for every mood, with truly medical qualities. Here’s a piece I wrote for Den Of Geek about why I love it so much.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014 – 113 mins – Amazon Prime)

Easily one of the finest science fiction movies of the past decade, think Groundhog Day meets Independence Day – where a soldier (Tom Cruise) fighting aliens gets to relive the same day over and over again, the day restarting every time he dies. His fellow soldier (Emily Blunt), may just be the answer to saving both he and the entire world.

Hunt For The Wilderpeople (2016 – 101 – Amazon Prime)

I first saw this movie at Genesis Cinema (East London), a month prior to it’s release – in screen 4 with an audience made up of folk from New Zealand and Australia. It was the perfect audience for such a hysterically funny film. A comedy adventure film set when a national manhunt is ordered for a rebellious kid Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) and his foster uncle Hec (Sam Neill) who go missing in the wild New Zealand bush. ‘ I didn’t choose the skuxx life, the skuxx life chose me.’

Man Up (2015 – 88 mins – BBC iPlayer)

This week’s underseen romantic comedy slot goes to this gem of a Brit flick. Nancy (Lake Bell) is in her mid-30s, fed up of being single but also fed up of her friend’s awful attempts at set-ups. After literally bumping into Jack (Simon Pegg), who believes she’s the woman he’s meant to be headed on a date with, Nancy decides not to correct him and go on the date. A night they’ll never forget soon follows. Wonderfully written by Tess Morris, this is a seriously funny film with a fantastic ensemble cast. Adhering to romcom tropes, yet playing wonderfully with them, any film that has a dance-off to this tuuuune has me sold.

Southside With You (2016 – 84 mins – BBC iPlayer)

Sometimes, when present day politics terrifies me (aka, most days) I think about the Barack Obama era, with the same degree of nostalgia one would an ex partner who you ended things with on mutually respecting yet loving terms. Should you be the same, this is an indie gem for you. It’s a fictionalised account of the first date between Barack (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle (Tika Sumpter). Understated, charming and really endearing.

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019 – 119 mins – Amazon Prime)

Armando Iannucci deciding to follow up the scathing satire The Death of Stalin with a Dickens adaptation felt like something of a choice. Thankfully, we any doubts were kicked away within the film’s opening moments. From then on it’s a charming and hilarious riot of laugher, that had me grinning like the Cheshire Cat the entire time. Dev Patel is the eponymous David in a riches-to-rags-to-riches-to-rags tale starring Peter Capaldi, Gwendoline Christie, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Hugh Laurie, Anna Maxwell Martin, Tilda Swinton, Paul Whitehouse, Ben Whishaw and Benedict Wong. Click here to read my film review.

Life, Animated (2016 – 92 mins – Netflix)

If you were to ask me the oddly specific question, ‘What are you favourite five documentaries of all time?’, this would definitely be making an appearance. A story that hits me on a personal level (as I mention here), we follow Owen Suskind as he gets ready to leave his family home and move away to live on his home for the first time. It’s a situation his parents’ would never have foreseen when he stopped suddenly speaking aged 3 and a diagnosis of autism soon followed. This is a film about the magic of parents and of Disney – two powerful forces that should never be underestimated.