‘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.

London Road

The citizens of London Road will talk-sing their way to a brighter tomorrow!

london rd

In 2006, in different locations across Ipswich and over a period of roughly three months, the bodies of five prostitutes were found. The murderer, Steven Wright, was identified and arrested. A resident of (you guessed it!) London Road, the discovery of his crimes led to the street being given a reputation and haunted his unknowing neighbours. The film follows the residents through; the period of uncertainty of a serial killer being on the loose: the identification of the murderer: his arrest, trial and convictions for all five crimes; and the community trying to rebuild itself by hosting events culminating in a flower show in their front gardens. The fact that these are all real events that occurred is echoed by the construction of the film – the residents of London Road were interviewed by Alecky Blythe over a period of three years. Her questions focused on the wellbeing of the community were well-received by the interviews and resulted in the unburdening of some very honest and heartfelt opinions. These recording were then transferred to a theatre production which was produced in a verbatim style – with the spoken text being reproduced by the performers exactly as it was recorded. Everything from tone, meter, pitch, inflection and fillers were retained to create a ‘real’ reflection of what happened. The twist is that the dialogue is set to music to expedite the emotion – intensifying what is being spoken/sung.

This film is, as far as I can gather, a true stage-to-screen adaptation. The killer and his victims remain unseen, the focus staying with the neighbourhood as it tried to regenerate in the aftermath. In fact the only change appears to have been with regards casting. Instead of retaining a main ensemble cast of unknown, the film has made the use of stunt casting. We have Anita Dobson (of Golden-era Eastenders fame), Olivia Colman (she of everywhere-on-the-telly fame) and Tom Hardy. Yes, you did read that right, the Tom Hardy (of the-awesomeness-that-is-Mad-Max fame and loads more.) This is one of two aspects of the film I found rather difficult. I will be very honest at this point and admit I was rather looking forward to Tom Hardy’s appearance (A- cracking actor B- also rather attractive.) When he finally appeared (I guesstimate 15 minutes in) he was good, for the three minutes of running time he featured. He was clearly chosen (and given top billing!) to draw in a crowd (I shamefully admit to this…) and does a fantastic job of creating well-rounded creepy character. In fact considering the short screen-time this is very impressive indeed. But one cannot help but ask, was he really needed? Why not use an equally talented but lesser known actor? When the USP for this film is the authentic-ness, the realism of what is being shown and heard, why then hire a big star like Hardy? Why pull the viewer out of such an immersive play but using such a familiar face? Why spend so much effort creating a suspension of disbelief, only to return them to relate with his (very skilled but very recognisable) presence?

This leads on somewhat to my second difficulty with regards this film. 24 hours on, I am still not sure if I liked this film. Also, I am not sure how necessary it really is. Whilst is it does celebrate the restoration of a community – in a time of utter emotional devastation light is brought in to conquer the darkness – is there not a degree of profiteering of the deaths of five young women?  This is surely a matter of personal opinion, although I am yet to decide mine (slightly flawed review then perhaps!?!) Those in the former camp will revel in the engaging sincerity, dazzle in the niche display and chuckle along with the dark humour. Others, however, will feel unsettled by the plot, bored by the pacing and find the emotion cloying.

For the most part, I’m afraid, I am in most agreement with the second of the two opinions. Though I desperately tried to will myself to like it, to an almost feverish extent, I just didn’t ‘get it’. Whilst the intent is admirable, the execution is jarring. Considering the film is so claustrophobic, the overly optimistic ending undercuts the power of what has gone on before. An interesting but flawed experiment.

Moomins on the Riviera

Is it Moomin’ marvellous? Well, yes and no…

Going into this film with no context of The Moomins is inadvisable. In fact, I would probably recommend this film only to big fans of the Moomins (shout out to Carrie ‘Cookie’ Turner-Gould and Matthew at this point!) Unfortunately, I am not a big fan of the Moomins. Although I have vague memories of the cartoon series, of strange hippo-looking creatures going on adventures, I do not really remember enough of the series to confirm that this film is merely a continuation onto the big screen. And I really did not remember The Moomins being so… strange…

The film opens with Snuffkin (yes I have got tabs open of Google and IMDB to help with this review!) strolling across Moomin Valley.In fact the entire opening sequence (3-5 mins) is of Snuffkin on his journey, of what and who he sees along the way. It is in this aspect the film really excels – the artwork and colouring is truly extraordinary. Every single frame could be printed off and used as artwork. The hand-drawn animation is truly glorious to watch on the big screen, and sets up a would could be described as a whimsical and quaint tone for the rest of the film. Or you could describe it as tedious. But I digress…

Finally, Snuffkin arrives at his journey. At the point the party (literally) gets started. Moominpappa makes a speech about how at this present moment he would not want to be anywhere else. He then plays a bit with fire then the party is over. Then we cut to the next day and a pirate ship is the distance (there is no transition or explanation, which may divide audiences) It starts to sink and the pirates escape – leaving behind their prisoners, Little My and her sister, who are tied up. They have also abandoned two treasures chests – one filled with gold and the other, seeds. The Moomins go to scavenge, accidentially rescuing the hostages in the process. The pirates come to collect their treasure chest from the Moomin family – who chose to collect books, fireworks and seeds instead. The pirates leave. The next day, whilst relaxing in the garden, they decide to go to the Riveria. They go to the Riveria. Various adventures happen. They go home.

And that is it in terms of the plot. It is incredibly simplistic and that both works, yet also doesn’t. Yes, it is a kids film but that doesn’t mean it has to be so simple or almost lackadaisical. Also, if this really is a kids film, I’m not so sure they would understand that many of the jokes or nuances. In fact the entire sequence in the Riveria is essentially a satire of a Monte Carlo- esque resort: about how ‘appearances can be deceptive’, to ‘be careful what you wish for’ and how ‘the grass isn’t greener on the other side’. Snorkmaiden is wooed by a charming celebrity man/dog/thing, who rivals Moomin in her afffections. It takes a fencing duel for her to realise the error of her ways. One character, the Marquis Mongaga, in fact personifies woes of consumerism completely. He spends most of the film charmed by the misadventures of Moominpappa (adventures I can only presume are recounted events from the comic strips?) until he feels bold enough to confess- he would give it all up to be a poor, struggling artist. Needless to say, he isn’t really suited to the lifestyle he has glamourised.  In this sense the film is quite clever, gently poking fun at bohemia and culture with some rather sharp gags. But this is done in a manner far too episodic for it to actually flow as a film.

This film, perhaps like marmite, will divide audiences totally. One side will leave the cinema describing it with adjectives including, ‘wistful’, ‘gentle’, ‘charming’, ‘mischievous’, ‘heartwarming’ and ‘eccentric’.

The other side will leave asking, ‘What did I just see..?’