Mank

Watched at the Ritz Cinema, Sydney, where it is now playing.

* * * *

I am the target audience for Mank, David Fincher’s Netflix-funded production of his dad Jack Fincher’s screenplay about Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz, a “screenwriter’s screenwriter” who won an Oscar for Citizen Kane. This film covers Mank (Gary Oldman) during the writing of that script, with flashbacks to his earlier Hollywood career and its intersection with Citizen Kane subjects William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies.

I’m the target audience all right: earlier this year, I read Sydney Ladensohn Stern’s 480-page biography of Mank and his brother Joseph, The Brothers Mankiewicz; I’ve read more books about Orson Welles, Citizen Kane’s director (and a minor character in this film by screen time but a major one by impact) than about anyone else; I’ve even read John Houseman’s books about working with Welles, and Houseman is a major character in this film no matter how you gauge it. I love the golden age of Hollywood; I love these (real-life) characters; I love films about films. This film was meant for me, and I loved it.

Will you? Hard to say. But there’s more on Fincher and daddy Fincher’s minds than just a Hollywood story. Mank’s desire to write a classic film about the media mogul of his day – Hearst – reflects his growing realisation that realpolitik trumps idealism, and Mank is really a political film, striking out at propaganda, electioneering and fake news. Its vibe is old-timey – more on that in a moment – but it’s actually very timely.

Fincher has shot the film so that it looks, sounds, feels and smells like it was made at the time Citizen Kane was: the early 1940s. It’s a startling experience. From the contrast of the black and white images, to the (simulated, I suppose) grain of the film, to the period-appropriate fade-outs, to the fun inclusion of cue blips – those strange circles in the upper right corner of the screen that appear in old movies to alert the projectionist to a reel change – Fincher and his cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt nail the aesthetic of the period, and the sound design follows suit. But there’s more to the film’s 1941faux-verisimilitude: the screenplay itself is constructed as it might have been then, and thus is it acted. Every actor in the film is, essentially, giving the performance they would have given in 1941, before the naturalistic ‘method’ stormed in. The whole enterprise is highly stylised, and it totally works. Once you’re in – a process that took mere minutes for me – you’re in. The style remains but it’s never an obstacle, obstruction nor irritant: form follows function, beautifully.

All that clever acting is excellent acting, too. Gary Oldman makes Mank a gloriously happy alcoholic, steering clear of many of the type’s trappings. It’s not a flashy performance but a stable one, Mank as hero of his own story, which he was. This is not a take-down, and Oldman’s performance is not a grotesque: he, and the film, like Mank, and so do we. He’s talented, generous, idealistic and, most importantly, true to himself, something recognised in him by others.

Amanda Seyfried delivers a career-best performance as Davies, Hearst’s young mistress. Charles Dance plays Hearst not as a monster but simply a master – of his domain, of men, of his mistress – and subverts our sympathies in the process. There are fine performance from Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer, Sam Troughton as Houseman, and Tom Burke, from The Souvenir, as Welles. But the character sharing the most scenes with Mank is Rita, a young woman employed to attend to him – and keep an eye on him – as he writes Kane; she’s played by Lily Collins, superbly. She’s Emily in Paris, too, but I’ll take Rita in Victorville, where she and Mank co-exist.

Mank is one of the films of the year. It’s surprisingly gentle, loving, calm and graceful. It takes you to another world. Five hours after leaving the cinema, I’m still kind of there. It’s my happy place, and Mank is, for me, a feel-good movie, one made like they used to.

American Utopia

Still the nerdiest and the coolest.

Opening In Australian Cinemas 26 November.

* * * * 1/2

It is a truth somewhat universally acknowledged that Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Talking Heads concert film, is the coolest movie ever made. It’s just perfect: energetic, joyous, polished yet spontaneous, cerebral yet earthily sweaty. It makes you think and dance, and David Byrne is just the nerdiest and the coolest.

He still is, and now Spike Lee documents him in concert again (with a different, purpose-built band) in a Broadway theatre. All the above adjectives still describe the new show, and once again, Byrne demonstrates his profound ability to turn a theatre full of strangers into a community. He creates a secular church, with his greatest hits as gospel, and his parishioners raise their arms. You will too. This is an hour and forty-five minutes of joyous energy. Created, performed and filmed before the US election, there’s a strong political edge, particularly urging the audience to vote. Now that they have, we can relax a little, and enjoy the music.

The Trouble With Being Born

Opens in Australian cinemas 3rd December.

* * * *

Austrian filmmaker Sandra Wollner’s challenging second feature is intelligent and thoughtful, legitimately subversive and transgressive, conceptually ambitious, but most of all, devastatingly sad. Straddling sci-fi, family drama and provocation, it operates as a darker B-Side to Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001).

In a world otherwise not markedly different from our own, realistic robots with advanced A.I. exist. In summer, in a suburban house in Austria, a man and his robot live together. He is middle-aged. The robot represents as female, around nine or so years old. Every facet of their relationship, and every facet of our response, is complicated.

This is one brave movie. It takes on massive thematic concerns unflinchingly. It will not be for everybody. It will not be for most. But it is guaranteed to make you think, and in particular, think about technology, grief, memory, and the conceptual link between them. It is a provocation only in that it dares to deal with possibilities we’d rather not think about, but it is not at all exploitative, grotesque or squalid. It is beautifully crafted along cool, formal lines, featuring exquisite naturalistic performances and sublime cinematography. It is rigorous, thoughtful and deeply heartfelt. One of the better films of the year, and almost certainly the most audacious.

The Comeback Trail

Opens Thursday 12/11/20 in Australia.

* * *

In 1974 Hollywood, a bottom-feeding, low-rent, schlocky producer of B-grade exploitation movies finds himself in hock to a nasty gangster; to get square, he concocts an insurance-scam scheme to kill an already-suicidal ageing movie star by casting him in a cowboy flick and giving him a lethal stunt to perform.

So far, so great, right? Sublime black-comedy premise within a fantastic milieu. Now add this cast: Robert De Niro as the sleazy producer, Morgan Freeman as the gangster, and… Tommy Lee Jones as the washed-up movie star! On paper, this could have been one of the great Hollywood satires.

It’s not. The script is sloppy – repetitive, one-note, overwritten – and the direction, by George Gallo, who has a long credit list of straight-to-DVD titles, is pedestrian at best and tone-deaf at worst. But the stars, and, very particularly, De Niro, bring something. It’s weird, but it’s something. De Niro plays his grubby Hollywood also-ran, Max Barber, as though cast in the ‘Woody’ role in a Woody Allen movie, and performing the role as Woody would. It’s a really strange choice, and quite a spectacle, but it’s strangely watchable, and the engine of the film. Whatever it is, De Niro’s going for it.

Jones is cast pretty much directly to his strengths, and Freeman is so at ease in his (fewer) scenes that he may be reciting his lines for some other film in his head even as he speaks these ones. They’re pros being pros, which is something to see, but De Niro, at 77, is going out on a whacky limb, and makes this otherwise mediocre movie passably strange.

The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)

My first produced play was a farce about intrigue among chess grandmasters. The climax, which I reckon was a bit of a coup de théâtre, involved the hero grandmaster facing off with the villain grandmaster over a game of chess. There was no board; the two characters stalked each other around the good guy’s living room, leaping onto furniture and barking out their moves: “Queen to rook five!” The entire match was played out, and if you were a deep chess person, theoretically you could follow it in your head, and it would be as suspenseful and fun as, say, the climactic sword-fight at the end of a production of Hamlet or Macbeth.

I cribbed the match from an actual one played by actual champions – I forget whom or from when. But I made sure to find a match that suited my players’ identities: I wanted the moves made to feel authentic, the kind of moves those actual characters would make. It was a long scene, and for people who couldn’t possibly follow the game in their heads (99% of us) there was a lot of jumping around and acting going on to keep them entertained; for the one percent (and that’s being very generous) that could follow the match, it played, I hoped, like the climactic boxing scene in a boxing movie, the final football game in a football film, etc.

So too, do the many chess games and snippets of, as played by the various competitors in The Queen’s Gambit, adhereto the sports movie formula: they are given enough screen-time to actually be appreciated, and are based on actual games that reflect the theoretical / fictional styles of the players. Chief among them is Beth Harmon, played spectacularly by Anya Taylor-Joy, an orphan in 1950s America who grows up to be a world champion. Her story is both a superhero girl-power adventure as she barrels her way up through the ranks of a very male sport, and an addiction drama: she loves her pills and, increasingly as I roll into the middle of the seven-episode limited series, her drink.

The period design is both gorgeous and a little over-the-top (most of the show was shot in Berlin-for-other-places, so there’s a lot of set dressing, both physical and digital, going on) and the same could be said for the drama. Subtle it is not. Nor nuanced. It’s the kind of show where a character is introduced by another character turning to a third character and saying, “Look, it’s X! He won the X tournament in 19XX and now he’s X.” Most of the dialogue is expositional and a lot of it is very clunky. One can see where most scenes, and most episodes, are headed. It’s unsubtle, obvious, on-the-nose.

But it’s also compelling, even compulsive: a classic Netflix binge. The plot is a page-turner (it’s based on a popular novel), Taylor-Joy is endlessly watchable, and the casting is really fun: every character, like Taylor-Joy, has an interesting-to-fascinating face. Most of the supporting cast are British, but their US accents are strong (as is Taylor-Joy’s) and they attack the material with gusto. It’s a sprawling drama with a lot of players and they’re all allowed to make their mark (and their move). In the main supporting role, of Beth’s adoptive mother Alma, Marielle Heller, best known as a director (Can You Ever Forgive Me?, A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood), is, as critics say a little too often, a “revelation.” In this case it’s true.

And then there’s the chess, treated seriously, with integrity, with respect. I suspect a lot of little girls will give the game a go thanks to this show (if they’re allowed to watch a show about an addict), and that alone is raison d’être. Pawn to Queen four!

Corpus Christi

Young Walken, right?

* * * *

Nominated for the 2019 Oscar for Best International Feature Film, Corpus Christi features a near-perfectly structured screenplay (the ending is perhaps a bit wonky), sublime formal cinematography, and pitch-perfect naturalistic performances, including from lead actor Bartosz Bielenia, whose portrayal of a young man who impersonates a priest in a small town in Poland after leaving juvenile detention is truly superb. Uncannily resembling the young Christopher Walken, he registers multiple levels of contradictory motive and emotion in every scene, adding great complexity to what is already a very rich and complicated story. We, as viewers and interpreters, are consistently put off-guard, as our protagonist challenges our perceptions: how much should we like this guy? How much are we allowed to? Sublime filmmaking; highly recommended.

The Climb

* * * *

The Climb, written by and starring Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin and directed by Covino, is very, very, very, very clever. Told over seven chapters, each containing only one or two extremely long and well-choreographed takes, it’s ambitious, witty and personal.

Mike (Covino) and Kyle (Marvin) are lifelong friends. Now (seemingly) in their late 20s / early 30s, they’re about to swap secrets, partners, and, in just one of the film’s many bold moves, physiques. We first meet them biking up a very long hill outside Nice, in France, where Kyle, it seems, is due to marry. Those plans are disrupted, and we follow the two men over the next decade or so, through many life changes and fascinating reversals.

The unbroken takes delightfully draw attention to themselves and become a big part of the fun: the camera weaves in and out of groups of people, houses, vehicles and even seasons. Elsewhere, other stylistic extravagances gleefully wave their hands for our attention: a sudden (albeit low-key) musical number, a lo-fi (albeit terrifying) action sequence. In every chapter, there is something stylistically exciting going on; likewise, the storytelling is giddily exuberant, revelling in dramatic ellipses, strange twists and well-shaped supporting characters.

This is a film that both harks back to an earlier age of American indies about male friendship (I was reminded of In The Company of Men, Neil LaBute’s 1997 debut) while also feeling fresh and unique. It seems to have been shot mainly in Colorado, itself a rare backdrop, and, here, a beautiful one. There is a strong French connectionbeyond the opening chapter in Nice; French music and references abound, and combined with the often snowy, woodsy locations, the film achieves an exoticism rarely found in American cinema. It is compelling, gently funny and constantly surprising. Highly recommended.

The Trial of the Chicago 7

* * *

Everyone’s in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (now on Netflix). Well, all your favourite dudes, anyway. Sacha Baron Cohen and Succession’s Jeremy Strong are on trial, in the wake of the protests at the 1968 US Democratic Convention in Chicago, as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Eddie Redmayne and John Carroll Lynch are on trial too, as the more level-headed Tom Hayden and David Dellinger. Mark Rylance and Ben Shenkman are there trying to defend them, while Joseph Gordan-Levitt is across the aisle for the prosecution. Meanwhile, glowering from his high bench, there’s Frank Langella as the odious Judge Julius Hoffman. When he walked into the courtroom, my partner blurted out, “Perfect.”

Indeed. Langella is, on the surface – on paper – perfectly cast, and emblematic of the kind of film this is: everyone’s playing to their strengths, to the gallery, and to the moment. Watching the dirty deeds hurled at the ‘7’ by the government makes you angry, both for then and for now: nothing’s changed. My anger came with a side of very weird comfort: Oh well, it’s not as though the current US administration is the first to be horribly corrupt, vengeful, and willing to unfairly prosecute their own citizens. There’s precedent!

It’s a wiggy movie – that is, there are a lot of wigs, a lot of beards, a lot of late-60s gear – and not a very subtle one. But it is a spectacular history lesson that also reverberates perfectly for this moment, while also becoming increasingly entertaining as it goes on. Each of the cast are given multiple moments to shine, and if Baron Cohen’s accent is (very) dodgy, his essence is not: he is a modern-day Hoffman, constantly speaking truth to corrupt power through subversive comedy. The least obvious casting may be Strong as Rubin, given his short-back-and-sides work on Succession, but he is actually the film’s greatest delight. And Redmayne is the best I’ve seen him.

Surprisingly, given the clear-cut case for his casting, the one who doesn’t work is Langella. He goes full-on Disney villain, Sorkin lets him, and together they come close to ruining the end of the film, Langella flailing about cartoonishly, a bully come-upped. It’s a pretty dreadful, intensely over-done, schmaltzy ending, and you come out whistling a familiar tune: Sorkin remains one of the great American screenwriters, but a fledgling director.

Kajillionaire

* * *

Miranda July’s third feature (after Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future) is on-brand, continuing to combine her low-key, deadpan, minimalist humanism with a lo-fi, washed-out, street-level aesthetic. Her films rely on character and circumstance, because they certainly don’t look or sound great.

Her set-up here is engaging off the bat: Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) has two truly terrible parents, as evidenced by her ridiculous name (it’s explained in the film in a typically kind-of-funny gag). They’re bottom-of-the-barrel Los Angeles con artists, the kind of people who are never not scamming, albeit for chump change. As played by Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger, they’re clearly both depressed and a little off, as is Old Dolio, who’s been brought up to be part of their gang rather than family. Their world, as pathetic as it is, is original and funny, and the first act is compellingly weird.

The second act sees another young woman – Melanie, played exuberantly by Gina Rodriguez – become accidentally involved in this demented tiny universe, and, initially, go along for the ride, raising Old Dolio’s anxiety from mildly constant to urgently severe. Suddenly there seems to be a second daughter figure vying for the attention of parents who’ve never accepted the first.

As with July’s other films, Kajillionaire is after more than laughs, and reaches quite moving levels of resonance as it engages with the idea of a young adult dealing with a lifetime of parental neglect (and worse). July reaches often for ecstatic moments, where she cranks up a song and captures LA’s sun glaringly in-camera, but it’s Rachel Wood’s performance that will either sell you or send you. It’s a big one, with all the trimmings – a voice, a look, a physicality – to leave us in no uncertain mind of Old Dolio’s deep damage. It just worked for me, even as I was constantly aware of it, and thus did the movie, constantly skirting the threshold of my patience, but always staying just on the right side.

Briarpatch; Lucky Grandma

BRIARPATCH (SBS On-Demand)
 

On my father’s bookshelf, novels by Ross Thomas were never far from those of Elmore Leonard. I’ve read a lot of my father’s Leonard but none of his Thomas, and Thomas isn’t talked about in the same revered tones, but they’re clearly similar authors, writing about cops and crims and cons and creeps with dialect-driven humour, often in the more exotic and lawless areas of the US.

There have been many Leonard adaptations, some very good – Out of Sight, Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Justified – and some, not so. I can’t recall seeing a Thomas adaptation before, but Briarpatch, on SBS On Demand, seems a perfect introduction to the man and his work. The characters and milieu are indeed colourful unsavoury types in one of the USA’s least savoury places: Texas. And the style suits the subject: colourful, bordering on cartoonish, neo-noir, wearing Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh and Tarantino influences proudly (and obviously). Heaps of very familiar, rough-hewn character faces support a fine central performance from Rosario Dawson. Fun, familiar, not violent, and comfortable: classic Dad-lit fare.

 
LUCKY GRANDMA (CINEMAS)
 

* * *

I’ll bet you haven’t seen anything else recently like Lucky Grandma (in cinemas now). Tsai Chin gives one of the performances of the year as Grandma Wong, a widow in Manhattan’s Chinatown who, through not particularly innocent means, ends up with a bag of cash belonging to a member of one of Chinatown’s gangs. She hires a massive young bodyguard, Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha), and the two strike up an unlikely friendship, even as they dig themselves into a deeper, messier hole with the local villains.

The film’s bouncy, neo-noir, jazzy, colourful aesthetic clearly demonstrates Coen Brothers, Soderbergh and Tarantino influences (in this respect, it’s not stylistically dissimilar, at all, to Briarpatch) but it’s the milieu, and Chin’s performance, that really sets the film apart. We’ve been to Chinatown (and Chinatowns) in many movies, but often accompanying an outsider (and often a white cop at that). Here, the whole story takes place within not only the place but the culture, and there are tremendously fascinating details in constant revelation, from how elders are addressed (everyone calls Grandma Grandma, even if she’s not, you know, their Grandma) to specific cultural rituals performed at the local bank branch. It’s fascinating and funny, and Chin – playing a very prickly person – will steal your heart.