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Mank (2020)

In 2003, director Peyton Reed (Ant-Man, Bring it On) recreated the “no-sex sex comedies” of the 1960s starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson, with Down with Love. It recreated not just that era in time but also the hokey filmmaking techniques of its time, including green screen for rear projection as the characters drive. It was a big homage to older Hollywood and a celebration of its outdated filmmaking and storytelling. But was the movie ever more than one elaborate homage? Did the film have any other reason for being than imitation? What about Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho? This is what I thought of as I watched David Fincher’s highly anticipated new movie, Mank, a surefire awards contender about Herman Mankiewicz as he writes early drafts of his career masterpiece, Citizen Kane. Fincher goes to a lot of trouble to recreate the look, feel, and sound of Mank’s creative era, but by the end I had one clear summation in mind: Mank is David Fincher’s Down with Love.

Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is washed up and he knows it. It’s 1940 and he’s worn out his welcome at the movie studios he used to be a screenwriting titan, heading story departments and adding witty, sardonic patter to dozens of studio pictures. He was a favored guest of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and a friend to his wife Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), an actress who got a boost from her high-profile marriage. Now he’s on the outs of the industry that has grown tired of his antics. Enter 24-year-old radio wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke) who personally wants to work with Mank. Welles has been given full creative control for his feature film debut and wants to make something big. He tasks Mank with writing the first draft and Mank turns to the people he knows best to skewer.

I was not expecting my blasé reaction to a Fincher film. It’s his first movie in 6 years (Gone Girl) and I think maybe his least compelling movie of his career. I’m not going to say that The Game or Panic Room are more artistic movies than Mank, steeped in the Hollywood studio system and lovingly recreating a faded era of bigwigs and big mouths. However, I will resolutely claim that either The Game or Panic Room are more entertaining. I doubt I’ll ever watch Mank again in my life. Thanks to the convenience of Netflix streaming, I watched the 130-minute movie over the course of two days but I was starting and stopping throughout. At one point I found myself zoning out and realized I had missed the importance of the scene and had to rewind to watch again. Dear reader, this was not my expected response at all. Why did I find the movie so lackluster? I think it comes down to the fact that it doesn’t really give you any more insight into Mank, the old studio bosses, the life and allure of filmmaking, the ascending industry of motion pictures and their prevailing cultural dominance, or even on Hearst or intriguing behind the scenes struggles with Kane. You’re just witness to history and not actively digesting and assessing it. In all honesty, you would be better off watching the Oscar-winning documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane or the underseen 1999 HBO TV movie RKO 281 (starring Liev Schireber as Welles and John Malkovich as Mank). Either of those two other movies would give you better intrigue and insight into the men and their legacies.

The character of Mank comes across so superficially like he’s just a catty, booze-soaked genius who is only good for a cutting retort and vomiting on your floor. I cannot state enough how uninteresting the character of Herman Mankiewicz comes across during this movie. He’s exactly the same from beginning to end and it gets rather tiresome. Even his first moments, where every dialogue response has to be pithy or setting up a later pithy remarks, can grow tiresome. It’s as if Fincher has made Mank one of his own characters in one of his own movies. He’s certainly not an unblemished protagonist. He has all manner of self-control problems, from his drinking to his mouth to his gambling to his general impulsivity. There should be drama here especially as he composes what every character tells him is “the best thing you’ve ever written.” I think part of the reason that I never really warmed to this character is that it never feels like anything really matters to him. Sure, he has his liberal values and trumpets causes and spats but I didn’t feel like I ever really knew Mank as an actual person. He’s too flippant, too passing, and too pleased to remain that way that spending an entire movie with this portrayal becomes exasperating.

The screenplay by Jack Fincher (the late father of the director) jumps back and forth between the framing device of Mank being cooped up in 1940 and writing Kane and his earlier experiences in Tinseltown through the 1930s. The framing device is unnecessary and boring. Mank’s relationship with the personal secretary (Lily Collins) tasked to write his dictation is just a dull storytelling device, another person in the room to give Mank a foil to launch his wit, and also, naturally, to remind him just how great a writer he can be. The 1940 Mank doesn’t feel like he’s gained any more wisdom or remorse. The flashbacks, accompanied by typewriter screenplay headlines, never fully coalesce into a clearer picture of the times. There is a lengthy subplot involving muckraking writer Upton Sinclair (literally played by Bill Nye “The Science Guy”) running for California governor, but all it does is establish that the studio heads are on one side of the ideological spectrum and Mank is on the other. There’s some conflict, yes, for him to continue working with these fat cats, the antithesis of his socialist politics, but it’s such a lengthy segment that I kept waiting for more relevance or life lessons. Then there’s a guy who might or might not kill himself and I’m supposed to care. The screenplay feels more like a series of anecdotes that jumps around a bit too much to really offer an insightful portrait of its star.

It also doesn’t help matters that Fincher’s film is part revisionist fantasy about the creation of Kane. This discredited theory stems from film critic Pauline Kael’s 1971 book, Raising Kane, where she proposed that it was solely Markiewicz and not Welles who wrote Citizen Kane. That is true… for the first two drafts. There were five drafts afterwards leading to production. It’s very true that much of the sturdy foundations were laid in place from Mank and his connections to Hearst and Davies (though Mank swore his portrayal of Davies was not intended to be her but the media version of her). It’s also true that Welles would shape and revise what Mank had begun and improve upon an already great start. There are plenty of articles to be read to better educate on the subject, or you can watch The Battle Over Citizen Kane, but the idea that Welles wanted to steal unearned credit and that Mank is some artistic martyr has not held up to decades of re-evaluation after Kael’s initial publication. There really is an interesting story how many ground-breaking rules Welles and Mank and cinematographer Gregg Tolland broke to tell their great American movie, and how revolutionary the movie was and continues to be so modern. You don’t have to resort to revisionist fantasy to tell the story of Mank and Kane, especially when the portrayal of Mankiewicz isn’t exactly notable to engender my passionate outrage.

Another bizarre choice is that Mank sidesteps the real blowback from Citizen Kane. Hearst was a powerful man and using his considerable influence to sabotage the movie. RKO Pictures was offered a sum to sell the film and bury it so it would never be seen. Hearst used his newspaper empire to discredit and defame Welles and his collaborators, but the genius of their work was too much to ignore and was nominated for nine Academy Awards in 1941 including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. It lost to How Green Was My Valley (the Crash of its day) and only won a single category, Best Original Screenplay. To turn the opposition against Hearst and the powerful mechanisms of capitalism into a squabble with Welles over sole ownership of a collaborative work just seems petty and insulting. Again, there is real drama and real backlash to Kane’s domestic release. Welles was never given complete control again and Mankiewicz faded back into alcoholic obscurity and eventually died in 1953 at age 55. There was much more that Mank could have gone into as a film and yet it just dragged through scene after scene of characters entering rooms, saying pithy remarks, and exiting rooms. More was required.

Oldman (Darkest Hour) is a reliable actor and can be enjoyable as Mank but he’s also victim to the overall tone and limited characterization. His performance is too smirky and self-satisfied, like the character knows he’s going to serve up the perfect one-liner waiting in his mouth at every turn. It’s also a little weird that Oldman is even older than Mank was after he died but Mank’s wife (Tuppence Middleton), who was the exact same age of Mank, is played by a woman almost 30 years younger than Oldman. I see some things from the old system still remain. I thought the two best actors in the movie were Dance (HBO’s Game of Thrones) as Hearst and Seyfried (First Reformed) as his wife, Marion Davies. Dance very much is modeling Hearst like a living king holding court, and Mank is his favorite jester, and the malevolent authority just under the surface is always noticeable, always on the cusp, a powerful man ready to act upon his power. Seyfried gets to reclaim Davies as a character and showcase her not just as a smart actress, who would act “dumb and silly” when she got ahead of herself with Hearst, but as a loving and supportive spouse. She’s goofy, humble, loyal, but also multi-dimensional, far more than the low-class, lonely wannabe opera singer Charles Foster Kane destroys his marriage over that she represented. If anyone deserves to be nominated for an Oscar for Mank, it’s Seyfried and the way she can breathe depth and life so brightly into her role.

Give the tremendous filmmaking pedigree of Fincher, there are obvious technical pleasures to admire. Mank is a stunning recreation of the old studio system, and there is an enjoyment simply watching this world come back to vivid life. The costumes and lavish production design are impressive. Knowing how mercurial Fincher can be as an artist, whenever you’re watching a crowd scene, I think about how long it took to stage every specific element. Fincher is rarely rivaled as a big screen visual stylist with his compositions and camera movements. There’s a gorgeous montage where Mank awaits the gubernatorial election returns and the imagery comes together like a Renaissance painting, reminding the viewer why Fincher made such a name for himself as a music video director in the 80s and 90s. Fincher also adopts much of the technical style of Mank’s era including a sound design that sounds like it’s crackling and humming constantly and “cigarette burns” in the top corner to denote reel changes. Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor produce a score that is jaunty, jazzy, and period appropriate, a big detour from their ominous, fuzzy, electronic-heavy scores we associate with them. It’s a whole lot of effort to make a painstaking homage of an older era but what does the movie offer outside of this homage? I don’t think much. If you’re a fan of Old Hollywood and Citizen Kane, you may get more out of Mank, but if you’re looking for insight and entertainment into the men and the movies beyond stylistic imitation, retreat to the real deal.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Untraceable (2008)

The Internet can be a scary place, no question. There’s plenty of weird crap in wide-open world of the World Wide Web. There are sites devoted to teaching people how to make bombs in the privacy of their own kitchen. If you can name a fetish, chances are there’s a pay sex site already built for it (I tried “clown porn” and was not disappointed, and by that I mean that I found a site for it and WAS deeply creeped out). According to the ongoing Dateline specials, everyone wants to “talk” to adolescent girls while they’re home alone. In short, the Internet can be a scary place. Untraceable, a barrel-scrapping genre movie, taps into our fears of the unknown in cyber space.

Agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) is a member of the Portland, Oregon office of the FBI. She specializes in tracking down cyber criminals and bringing them to real-world justice. There’s a new Web site called “Kill With Me.com” that invites anonymous users to serve as executioners. The site creator creates death traps that increase in deadliness the more users click onto the site; so a man bleeds out faster the more people that want to catch a glimpse of it. Lucky for the FBI, the cyber killer is doing all this nasty business in Portland. Marsh and her cyber assistant (Colin Hanks) try finding the location of the IP site but, somehow, it skips around the world and cannot be pinpointed. The victims of the site are specifically chosen, and Marsh is struggling to put it all together. Then the cyber killer begins stalking her and lets others join in on the fun.

Untraceable is rather hypocritical in nature. It wants to titillate an audience but then shame them for embracing the titillation; the movie is purveying the same crap that it derides. The premise of a digital age serial killer that transforms murder into an online democratic act sounds nifty. Plenty of insightful questions generated by this premise like the nature of exploitation, media, and the culpability on the account of the insatiable viewing public. It’s too bad, then that Untraceable just uses the premise as a jumping off point to create a half-assed Saw. The movie is mostly concerned with reworking the familiar tropes of the serial killer genre, this time with some extra dashes of torture and Saw-style death traps. But the movie doesn’t fully commit to horror so much of the gore is implied. The extra attention to torture seems timidly tacked on to the framework of a thriller, likely grossing out the older folk that came to the movies thinking they were going to watch Diane Lane assert justice on this new fangled Internets thing. The movie has a vague fear of technology and computers and seems programmed to scare people that don’t know any better, namely the people who think computers are bigger toasters.

The script by relative neophytes is where the movie treads water. The villain is revealed fairly early, like a half hour in, and this revelation does nothing to help build tension. The culprit responsible for the laughably implausible death traps is a gangly eighteen-year-old twerp (Running with Scissors‘ Joseph Cross; yes that kid). I understand that in serial killer movies the villain usually takes on some form of supernatural abilities, like the ability to be everywhere and never be seen, or the ability to draw super strength at opportune times. When Untraceable apathetically reveals its villain the movie seems like it’s already giving up and conceding, “Okay, this is the big bad dude and he weighs about 110 pounds soaking wet. We know he could never outmatch anyone that is over five feet tall.” Marsh’s home life is also given obligatory screen time, including Marsh’s mother keeping watch of the home, but it never matters. In this world, birthday parties just get in the way of FBI manhunts.

The film also requires character to act inexplicably stupid at a moment’s notice in order for the plot to hum along. Marsh is such an expert on cyber crime, and yet she doesn’t bat an eyelash when her young daughter downloads a mysterious computer program sent to her by a “friend”? Never mind that this FBI expert logs onto the “Kill With Me” site on her home computer, allowing the killer to hack into her computer and look through all her personal information and cyber dirty laundry. The worst lapse occurs after our tech-savvy killer has effectively hacked into Marsh’s OnStar computer system in her car. The engine shits down and the car slows to a halt. Marsh leaves her car to use a roadside telephone to tell another cop that the killer has hijacked her car. The cop on the phone advises her to be on alert. Right after she hangs up, the car’s engine and lights become operational once again. Marsh trots over to her car, whose door had been open since she left, and simply hops back inside without checking the vehicle at all. She is swiftly tazed and kidnapped by the killer who was routinely hiding in the back seat. It’s not like a trained FBI agent would be able to miss the inescapable sight of somebody hiding in a tiny backseat with little room to crouch. I can excuse smart people making stupid decisions, but when a movie like Untraceable has experts not following through on situations that require their expertise, then it comes across as contrived. Really, a cop wouldn’t even peek in the backseat?

Lane holds her own, and even that is an accomplishment for something so rote. She’s an actress easing into her forties and finding a new tap of talent. Frankly, she should have won the Best Actress Oscar for 2002 with her fabulous work in Unfaithful. That movie came out five years ago, and yet the Diane Lane in Untraceable looks so much older. I think the filmmakers were trying to make her look more harried by not applying makeup or utilizing soft focus. You can see her wrinkles and her age, and these are all well earned for a great actress, and Untraceable wants to maker her look her age in a time where Hollywood seems to dump out an actress’ business card once she hits 40. I just thought that was interesting, but the most interesting facet of this entire movie is that the actor who plays the head of the FBI team (Peter Lewis) looks remarkably close to 2008 Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. It’s uncanny. If Huckabee ever plans on contributing to a filmed biopic of his life, then Peter Lewis should be on his shortlist.

Untraceable scrapes the serial killer genre for some form of life. The novel premise gives way to predictably lackluster thrills and gaping plot holes. Lane saunters around with a gun for two hours, mixed in with some extended sequences of torture, including one that involves hundreds of heat lamps. Look, I know I’m no cop, but couldn’t someone simply trace the massive electric bill this guy is generating? It’s just sloppy police work all around. Why? Because the movie requires giant lapses in judgment so that it can continue. The world can be a sick place, but has it always been this way? A better movie would dig deeper; this movie just wants to fry a cat and call it a day.

Nate’s Grade: C

Running with Scissors (2006)

Ever since author James Frey imploded into a million little pieces, the memoir has come under intense scrutiny. At issue is the validity of the written word, whether these people are being honest as they recount their tortured yet inevitably redemptive lives. What is the difference between nonfiction and memoir, and does it implicitly imply personal bias? Running with Scissors is the 2002 best-selling book detailing the bizarre childhood of Augusten Burroughs. It’s a book with lots of out-there claims but they’re all held in check by Burroughs’ tart observation and witty writing. When translated to the silver screen, Running with Scissors loses credibility without the author’s voice. I doubt many people going in cold will even believe what they’re seeing.

In the 1970s, Augusten (Joseph Cross) is a gay teen growing up in the care of his alcoholic father (Alec Baldwin) and his deeply delusional, bipolar, wannabe poet mother (Annette Benning). When their marriage hits one of its many slags they seek out a therapist, Dr. Finch (Bryan Cox). He has a room he dubs his “masturbatorium,” a resemblance to Santa Claus, and a family just as whacked as he is. His oldest daughter, Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow), helps him in his practice and thinks that pets talk to her, even from beyond the grave. Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) is the rebellious daughter who likes to play doctor via electric shock therapy. Agnes Finch (Jill Clayburgh) is the matriarch of this cracked family that also enjoys eating some dog kibble here and there. When Augusten’s mother signs over adoption papers he becomes the reluctant newest member of this dysfunctional family.

The trouble with translating a book is that you lose the author’s voice and commentary. Running with Scissors maintains the horrifying living conditions for Augusten and the stable of oddballs, but lost is the author’s snappy humor that carried him through this tumultuous time. It’s definitely weird but it’s far from engaging. Without the wit and dark humor from Augusten’s voice we’re left with a series of loosely bandaged scenes about crazy characters and crazy anecdotes, little of which contains further importance. This is a fan of the book talking here, and I’m afraid that the film adaptation has heightened some of the weaknesses of the book, namely the loose storyline. When pieced together as a film, Running with Scissors can become slightly tiresome and overly reliant on background details. The film treats its wild, kitschy production design and 70s nostalgia as a character on par with anyone. It makes for great production design, true to the spirit of the book, but also serves as a narrative distraction. Too much attention seems to be put on getting things to look right than getting the screenplay to feel right.

Without the author’s voice the results lose credibility. It’s funny to see a Christmas tree up year round, and it’s funny when Dr. Finch is convinced God is communicating to him through his bowel movements, but it all just comes off as another joke like the art direction and nothing more. When fully added together without any sense of pathos, it all seems like a joke. The subplot involving Augusten’s sexual relationship with a much older schizophrenic patient (Joseph Fiennes) seems mishandled without much insight. Running with Scissors presents all examples of dangerous, sometimes illegal, behavior and doesn’t bat an eye, nor does it pass judgment. While this may irk some and seem irresponsible it’s just another case of little mattering. Running with Scissors, as an adaptation, presents little of consequence.

Director Ryan Murphy also adapted the screenplay and knows a thing or two about dysfunction and trashiness, having created the risky TV show Nip/Tuck. His adaptation has a blunted feel, but it also seems too broad. Then again, maybe only fans of the book would notice. He has a good feel for his actors and can stage some nice shot selections, but man, someone needs to slap his hand away from the AM radio. Running with Scissors is crammed with so many popular 70s tunes that it becomes a crutch, with Murphy hitting the soundtrack button whenever he needs some kind of character catharsis. It doesn’t work and comes across as indulgent and simplistic. There are so many zippy classic pop songs you may think Elton John is owed a writing credit.

The acting is one of the elements that help give life to this adaptation. Benning has been generating Oscar buzz for her deeply self-involved portrayal of a mom held hostage by her illness. Benning digs deep and displays a comic range of absurd behavior and wild paranoia. She’s all over the place and you can’t help but loathe her, that is, if you ever take her seriously. But then, once overly medicated, she gives an entirely secondary performance as an emotionless zombie, and we feel a sliver of sympathy, a true surprise. It’s a good, meaty role, however, I actually think Clayburgh gives the more Oscar-worthy performance. In a lot of ways she’s resigned to her fate and yet manages to be the gauzy heart of the picture. She tells me more with her wrinkles than Benning does in her gesticulating outbursts.

The rest of the cast work admirably. Cross is our focal point of the story and does a fine job of, essentially, gawking and looking perplexed. He’s like a blank, gangly canvas, and I wonder what else Cross is capable of than a performance built around indignant reactions. Wood is developing into a lovely adult actress and has some of the best foul-mouthed lines. It’s just nice to see Paltrow in a movie again. Baldwin has transformed from leading man into incredibly versatile supporting actor that excels as comedic lunkheads. Cox remains one of my favorite character actors of all time. There’s nothing this man cannot do. The actors all do a good job of filling out their zany characters while leaving their own imprint.

The issue with Running with Scissors is that when you strip away the author’s caustic voice, then the movie strains credibility, even with the knowledge that it?s based on a personal memoir. The movie gets all the wackiness but misses out on some of the finer points and humor that helped save Augusten from his unorthodox housing. The story feels dulled and stretched too broad, and yet it still manages to be intermittently entertaining despite these flaws. The actors range from good to great and the art direction is fantastic, even if Murphy expects it to do more work than his screenplay. Running with Scissors isn’t as nervy, engaging, or provocative as its source material. Then again little else is. Consider the film Running with Safety Scissors.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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