Reel Opinions


Thursday, December 31, 2020

A Year-End Update

Usually on New Year's Eve, I would be posting my Reel Stinkers list of the worst films of the year.  Obviously, given the fact that my movie watching took a huge hit this year, that will not be happening.  I also will not be posting my picks for the best films in a couple months, because I don't think I've seen enough to make a full list of truly great films.

I apologize if this disappoints anyone.  The truth of the matter is that I don't really enjoy streaming movies that much.  I prefer the social interaction of the theater, and so whenever I stream something to watch on TV or on my laptop by myself, the experience just feels like it is missing something.  I know I am in the minority.  I have spoken to a lot of people who do not miss theaters at all, and love being able to watch whatever they want on multiple streaming services.  But to me, it's simply not the same, and I truly hope theaters will be able to survive whenever the time does come that we can return to some sort of normalcy in our world.

As for myself, I have managed to remain healthy the entire year, luckily.  Even though it has been a rough year overall with me losing my job of 15 years due to the company not being able to sustain a full work force, and having to give up travel plans, and my plans for my girlfriend to move closer to me, I know that I am lucky all things considered.  When I think about what so many other people have lost this past year, I know that I have little to complain about.  I'm in a good place financially, and my at-home job training that I have been doing for almost six months is going well at the moment.  So, please don't worry about me, and I hope that all of you have managed to stay safe in these times.

My output for reviews in the year ahead will depend greatly on what will be offered.  Like I said, I'm not a huge fan of streaming in general, so unless it's a film I'm truly interested in, I will not seek it out.  I promise I will try to review when I can.  I want to keep this blog alive, and I appreciate those of you who have given me support all these years.  I will update whenever I can, so please continue to follow this blog.

Thank you all again for your support, and here's to hoping for better times ahead.  It's going to be a while, and there's a lot of mess to clean up before we can get to where we were before March of 2020 hit, but I know it will happen.  Until then, stay safe all of you. 

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Sunday, December 27, 2020

Soul


Pixar filmmaker Pete Docter loves to take challenging and adult ideas, and explore them in funny and touching ways with his movies.  In Up, he explored the ideas of loss and moving on with your life.  In Inside Out, he explored the mind of a preteen girl, and offered a complex look at depression, how our emotions can be muted, and the importance of sadness - an emotion that some seem to shun and hide away as much as possible.  If that movie was focused on what was going on in our brain, then his latest film Soul goes much deeper.  It wants to explore what makes us who we are, and that one individual thing we have that sparks our interest, and makes life worth living.

In the film, we follow a man named Joe Gardner (voice by Jamie Foxx), whose sole purpose in life is music, particularly jazz.  As a boy, Joe was taken by his father to a local jazz club, and he felt an immediate connection with the music unlike anything he had ever felt before.  Since then, all he has thought about is the music that moves him, and to perform it.  Joe is now middle-aged, and stuck teaching an uninterested middle school music class.  He's been given the chance to teach full time, which would mean financial security for the first time in his life.  Then he gets a call from a former student (Questlove) who has been performing with the legendary Jazz Diva Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) for the past few years.  The piano player in her quartet has dropped out at the last second before a gig, and Joe is given the chance to audition and join the band.

Joe aces the audition, gets the job, and is riding so high emotionally during his walk home that he's not looking where he's going, causing him to fall down an open manhole.  This is where the film truly begins, as Joe's soul (represented by a blue, blobby little figure) finds itself leaving his physical form, and ascending a celestial escalator up to The Great Beyond, where all souls go when their time on Earth is up.  Joe, obviously, wants nothing to do with this.  His life was just about to truly start, he feels.  He goes in the opposite direction of the afterlife, and finds himself in The Great Before, an alternate purgatory filled with green fields and pastel colors where young souls who have not yet been born create and shape the personalities that they will have during their lives on Earth, and are guided by strange beings that resemble Picasso sketches, and are all named Jerry.  The little souls who are getting ready to be born need mentors who will shape them before their journey to Earth.  Joe jumps at the chance, realizing that he can mentor a kid until they get their Earth Pass (the ticket that allows them to enter the human world), then swipe the kid's Pass, and use it to return to his body.

Unfortunately, it's not going to be that easy, as Joe gets paired up with a little soul named No. 22 (Tina Fey).  She's a soul who refuses to be born, and has no interest in going to Earth.  No. 22 has had a large number of famous mentors over the years that have tried and failed to guide her, including Abraham Lincoln (she enraged him), Mohammad Ali ("You are the greatest...pain in the butt!"), and Mother Theresa (she made her cry).  Joe has to somehow find a way to inspire her that life is worth living.  I'm going to have to be vague here in order to avoid spoilers, but both souls do eventually find themselves on Earth, just not in the physical forms that they intended.  The remainder of the film is a buddy comedy/drama as the two spirits bond with each other, and learn that life can truly be worth living, and that it can be even if it's not the one that you planned.  

Much has been made of the fact that Soul is the first Pixar movie to feature a largely African American cast, but the movie is smart not to draw too much attention to this, or to feel like it is self-congratulating for this fact.  It's first and foremost a very human story about the dreams that shape us, and the everyday experiences that we sometimes take for granted, as well as the people in our lives who sometimes seem to be standing in our way, but are really trying to support us.  The film tackles a lot of themes, but does so in a way that is hilariously funny, never heavy handed, and ultimately tear jerking, as is usually the norm in Pete Docter's films.  The movie is also one of the few Pixar films I can think of where the setting is truly as much a character in the film as the people are.  It expertly uses its New York settings of music clubs, barber shops, subways and even street corner stores that is likely to make many people nostalgic for a pre-pandemic time for the city.  It perfectly captures the energy and life that the streets can have, and the autumn colors only add to the beauty.

Like the best films to come out of the studio, there is no real villain here, although there is an antagonist in the form of a celestial being who has figured out that a soul that was supposed to go to the Great Beyond has escaped and is hunting it down.  It's a human-driven story made up of small wonderful moments, such as the interactions between Joe and his mother (Phylicia Rashad), and the relationship that eventually grows between the two spirits as they spend time on Earth.  Naturally, music also plays a large role in the film, and we have a fantastic music score here provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, with additional jazz contributions by Jonathan Batiste.  We also have some wonderfully stylized designs for the film's afterlife settings, which may not be quite as elaborate as the ones featured a few years ago in Pixar's Coco, but have an appropriately cool and calming energy that works well with the story being told here.  


After the disappointing Onward from earlier this year (one of the last films to get a theatrical release this year), Soul represents the very best that the Pixar animators and storytellers can do.  This is an example of a bold vision that has been brought to life with tremendous care and humor, and equally so by a wonderful voice cast.  It's a tremendous film all around. 


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Saturday, December 26, 2020

Wonder Woman 1984


The long-delayed Wonder Woman 1984 allows us the pleasure of finally seeing the famous superheroine's mode of transportation, the Invisible Jet.  Considering that the character has been appearing on the big screen since 2016's Batman v. Superman, and this is our first glimpse of the Jet, you have to wonder what took so long.  It also gets you excited for what other sights the movie might offer.  Perhaps the famous transformation spin?  

Unfortunately, this sequel to the 2017 blockbuster origin film winds up spinning its wheels, rather than going anywhere in particular for most of its overlong two and a half hour running time.  This is a sequel that wants you to think it has a lot on its mind, but it never goes deep enough with what its trying to say, and is just not fun enough with its action and humor in order for the audience to ignore its problems with handling the message.  It gets even worse when it devotes its final 15 minutes to nothing but Wonder Woman (once again winningly played by Gal Gadot) preaching to the villain, and the audience perhaps.  She goes on and on, and so does the movie, to the point that I just kind of wanted it to end a lot sooner than it did.  Throw in a heavy-handed climax, complete with a final scene that hits you over the head repeatedly with its theme of how wonderful the world and humanity is, and I personally kept on waiting for Wonder Woman to walk off the screen, and for the Care Bears to take over.

And yet, this film begins on such a promising note.  Returning director and co-writer, Patty Jenkins, starts things off with a thrilling flashback that finds a young Diana before she was Wonder Woman (a charming Lilly Aspell) competing in a game-like challenge with her fellow and much taller Amazons.  The action here is thrilling and fun, and we get returning cameos for Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen as Diana's two main childhood moral figures.  Flash forward to the year 1984, and the movie bombards us with a lot of references to the fashion, culture, and music of the era.  We then get a sequence where Wonder Woman takes out a group of thugs at a shopping mall that seems to be borrowing its tone from Richard Donner's original Superman film.  Again, this is a lot of fun, and sets the audience expectations that the we are in good hands, and that the movie will be tremendously entertaining.

But then, little by little, that joy ends as we catch up with Diana in her current life when she's not battling criminals or saving random people in danger.  She now works at the Smithsonian in Washington, researching relics that come into the museum.  But most of the time, she pines for human company, and longs for her lost love from some 60s years ago, Steve Trevor.  A lot of superhero movies have touched on the fact about how lonely these heroic figures are in their private lives outside of costume, but the screenplay credited to Jenkins, Geoff Johns and David Callaham kind of turns Diana into a bit of a mope.  She does nothing but envy other people and their everyday lives, and how she will just never love another man ever again.  This wouldn't be so bad if the movie just touched upon it, but it takes up a good chunk of the film and slows things down considerably.

Also working at the Smithsonian is the mousy and nerdy Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), who can't seem to walk more than two feet without tripping on herself, and is pretty much ignored by everyone at work, and is constantly threatened or harassed by shabby drunks during her walks home.  The two women strike up a friendship, and Barbara soon starts wishing that she could be as strong and as confident as Diana seems to be.  Wouldn't you know it, an ancient stone that supposedly has the power to grant wishes happens to arrive at the museum, and winds up on Barbara's research desk.  Turns out said stone does actually have mythical powers, and both women wind up getting what they really want out of life.  Barbara gets to become powerful and recognized for her beauty, and Diana suddenly finds that her long-lost love, Steve Trevor (again played by Chris Pine) is somehow now alive, as if nothing has changed in the time since they last saw each other.  This leads to a role reversal from the last film.  Whereas last time Steve acted as Diana's guide to teach her about the world of mortals and men, this time Diana gets to teach Steve about how the world has advanced over time.  It's a cute idea, but the movie squanders it on pointless montages where Steve tries on different "wacky" forms of 80s fashion.

Meanwhile, Barbara's transformation into a woman who craves power above all else and will do anything to hold onto it is accompanied by another antagonist in the form of Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal from The Mandalorian), a failed oil tycoon and self-help TV personality who is drowning in debt.  He's after the mythical wish-granting stone as well, and when he gets his hands on it, he uses its powers to the fullest in order to conquer the oil market, crush his enemies, and basically create chaos and destruction in his wake.  Of course, all of these wishes have to have consequences.  Barbara slowly loses her humanity and caring nature, and is transformed into the super villain The Cheetah, who in her final "monster" form looks uncannily like a left over special effect from last year's Cats movie.  Diana begins to lose her super strength and powers, and has to decide whether she wants to hold onto her lost love, or regain her powers in order to help humanity.  As for Maxwell, he becomes a power-hungry megalomaniac, all the while his doe-eyed little boy watches in horror as his father becomes a monster, when he just wants his dad to love him.  

All of this is handled with the subtlety of a sledgehammer blasting through a brick wall, and leads to those endless series of preachy scenes that I mentioned earlier as characters learn what's truly important.  Wonder Woman 1984 might have worked if it wasn't so cluttered in its plotting, and if the characters had more dynamic personalities, but nobody gets to be all that interesting.  Aside from a few special effects-aided fight scenes, Diana mostly just gets to look at Steve longingly, and doesn't really seem to be driving the plot like she should.  Barbara is your basic "geek who gets a taste of power and abuses it" villain that we've seen before with Jim Carrey's The Riddler in 1995's Batman Forever, and more recently Jamie Foxx's Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.  Maxwell seems to be drawing inspiration from Gene Hackman's portrayal of Lex Luthor in the previously mentioned Superman film, but he never comes across as a truly threatening figure.  His love for his son is supposed to give him some humanity, and perhaps a tragic angle, but it never comes across as strong as it should, so I never felt anything.

In fact, I never felt much of anything watching this, which is perhaps the film's biggest failing.  There are scattered moments that lifted my spirits, such as a beautiful sequence where Wonder Woman flies through the clouds.  However, even this is squandered somewhat by the fact that I was watching it on my laptop, and not on the big screen as intended.  I know, there was nothing that could be done here, and it's not the fault of the filmmakers.  Still, there are definitely some sequences here that suffer from the lack of the theatrical experience.  Even the action sequences are so filled with special effects that they never quite seem real.  When we see Wonder Woman performing a daring rescue of children placed in danger (something that seems to happen a lot in this movie, like the writers couldn't think of any other kind of situation for her to handle), it looks like a special effect, not a narrow escape where the audience catches their breath.  Were it not for the fact that Gal Gadot perfectly embodies the character of the heroine, I kind of question if Diana would be worth watching here.


Wonder Woman 1984
seems like a movie where the filmmakers were not sure what to do with the character after their successful introduction of her in a solo movie, and so they kind of tried to do too much, while at the same time not doing nearly enough.  There's just not a lot here that stands out, and nothing that made me feel in awe of getting to see the character from the comics on the screen again.  I wanted this movie to send my spirits soaring, but aside from a few random moments, I had no trouble keeping my feet on the ground watching this.

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Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Prom


When I saw The Prom on the Broadway stage in 2018, it was a scrappy little underdog show that had to compete for attention amongst the bigger, flashier productions.  It was never a huge hit and did not even last a full year in its run, but it managed to get some Tony nominations, and developed a loyal fanbase with audiences who saw it.  This cinematic take from director Ryan Murphy (TV's Glee) is star-studded, overblown, over performed, and filled with flash and glitz from top to bottom.  In other words, it completely misses what made the original musical special to people.

I understand the need to "open up" a stage musical when it is adapted for the screen, and expand upon it for the film medium.  But I think the filmmakers have gone about it the wrong way here.  They've filled it with fantasy sequences, inflated production numbers that are more busy than fun, and CG-fueled backdrops that are simply distracting.  It gets to be a bit crass as it goes through its over two hour run time, and eventually the talented cast that the film managed to gather gets swallowed up by the gaudiness surrounding them.  Not that actors like Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells, and Keegan-Michael Key aren't trying to stand out here.  They get to have their moments, but the production they're in is just too inflated and bloated for them to truly grab our attention.  And so, a lot of the time, they seem to be trying to go as big as the film itself with their performances, creating a level of camp that feels a bit off.

The film opens in the small town of Edgewater, Indiana, where a Senior at James Madison High School named Emma Nolan (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) just wants to take her girlfriend to the school prom, but finds the head of the PTA, Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), standing in her way.  Rather than have a female couple attending, Greene decides to cancel the event, which leads to the entire student body blaming Emma for there being no prom that year.  Emma has some support, mostly in the form of the school's principal Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) and her Grandma Bea (Mary Kay Place), but mostly she feels alone.  It's never been easy for Emma, since her parents forced her to leave home when she came out to them a few years ago, and the only hope she sees is to leave Indiana as soon as she can.  ("Note to Self: People Suck in Indiana", she sings.)

Meanwhile in New York City, Broadway legends Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) are facing the worst reviews of their career after the opening night of their flop musical, "Eleanor!", about the life and times of Eleanor Roosevelt and F.D.R.  The show, which apparently employed a lot of hip hop in its numbers, is savaged by the critics, with one recommending that anyone considering buying a ticket to use the money to buy some rope and hang themselves instead.  With the show's Opening Night also becoming its Closing Night, the two retire to the bar at the legendary bar and grill of the Great White Way, Sardi's, where they are joined by two other Broadway veterans also having a rough night.  Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) has been in the chorus in the musical Chicago for 20 years, and has never been offered a more prominent role.  And the bartender serving them is Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), who despite graduating from Juilliard (a fact he feels the need to tell everyone who crosses his path), is still more famous for his stint on an early 90s sitcom.  

Facing career meltdowns, the four actors decide that they need to improve their image by finding a worthy cause and publicizing their social justice efforts.  Angie stumbles upon Emma's story, which has been trending lately, and they decide it's the perfect scenario to rally behind.  They hop aboard a bus to Indiana, and immediately barge their way into the situation, getting behind Emma whether she wants them to or not.  Just like in the original stage production, there are some gentle barbs about celebrities who get involved with social causes, as well as some funny theater in-jokes about celebrity stunt casting that some long-running shows employ to keep going.  The film also has the same tuneful songs, enthusiastic choreography, and genuinely sweet moments that I remember.  Just like when I saw it two years ago, I liked the gradual romantic relationship that grows between Dee Dee and Principal Tom Hawkins, who is revealed to be a major theater nerd, and is one of the few people who seems delighted by the celebrities descending upon their little town.

But this movie just kicks everything up to a very obnoxious and plastic level that it didn't need to.  The Prom did not need to be an extravagant production filled with huge set pieces, CG backdrops, and an overall tone that would be right at home in a Las Vegas production.  Everything's blown up here, even the performances, which make them seem much more forced than they should be.  There are a few moments here that work, such as Key's number about what theater means to him, and why it's so important.  But so much of the movie is played broadly and with such extravagance that it drowns out its ultimate message about tolerance, and its satire of celebrities rallying around social justice in order to boost sagging careers.  It's all there, but it never works as well.  Even the number Emma sings to her girlfriend about how she doesn't "need a big production", and just wants to dance with the one she loves at the prom has sadly been turned into, yes, a big production.  If that's not missing the point, I don't know what is.


All this movie does is prove that the material worked much better when it was played modestly on the stage.  By adding a starry cast, a huge budget, and a lot of over the top theatrics, the little show so many fell in love with becomes a plastic, grinning monstrosity.  It's not that the script has deviated from the original.  It's just that Ryan Murphy's style is all wrong for it, and he probably should have been passed over for someone who would let these characters shine, instead of fighting for our admiration against a garbled epic vision. 

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Sunday, December 13, 2020

Wolfwalkers


Isn't it funny that animation is a medium that can create images that are impossible in our reality, and yet all too often in mainstream cinema, most animated films are content with simply recreating current pop culture trends?  Sure, there are exceptions in Hollywood, like Laika Studios, but most seem content with bringing us the usual talking animals and funny Minions that we have seen before.  Wolfwalkers, the newest film from Irish based Cartoon Saloon, is one of the more wondrous animated features I've seen in a while.  Rooted deep in Irish folklore, yet accessible to all audiences, this is the kind of family film I go to the movies for, as it not only tells a great story, but shows me sights I have never seen before.  

All of the past films the studio has released, like The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner, have all been rooted deep in mythology and the history of the culture that the stories were set in.  Wolfwalkers is the same way, as it's set in the 17th Century of Kilkenny Ireland, the very area where the studio was founded.  They are working off of local history and myths here, and combining them to create a moving, exciting, and ultimately poignant film.  It's also just beautiful to look at.  Even with the past high standards the studio has done, this feels like what they've been building up to this entire time.  With a lush storybook visual style, and a certain flow to how the characters move, this is a film that grabs your attention just from its look alone.  Even if the story is not exactly fast-paced, it's not sluggish either, and is certain to enthrall any child who watches it, and perhaps even more so the adults.  

The film opens in 1650, and a pompous and pious English general who insists on being called the Lord Protector by his followers (voice by Simon McBurney) has settled his people in a cold and rigid Irish city with prison-like walls on the edge of a forest.  His main goal is to prove to his people that nature can be tamed, and he aims to show this by destroying the forest so that his kingdom can expand.  He controls his soldiers and townspeople with fear and dominance, and even though he has plenty of detractors, they are afraid to speak up in his presence.  One not-entirely loyal member of the army is the widower Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean), a hunter who has been tasked with killing all of the wolves that inhabit the forest so that the Lord Protector can scorch and clear the land for expansion without any resistance.  However, Bill keeps his head down and does not speak any opposition, mainly to protect his one and only daughter, Robyn (Honor Kneafsey, giving a spirited voice performance).

It is law that no children leave the safety of the city walls, but Robyn is an adventurous sort who frequently sneaks past the guards in the hopes that her father will let her join him in his daily hunts.  Bill swore to his late wife that he would keep their child safe, but the enticement of tracking wolves rather than spending her days within the walls doing the chores of a scullery maid is too strong for the tomboyish girl to ignore.  Entering the forest on her own, Robyn discovers that the wolves within are quite unusual, and seem to answer to a wild-haired and feral girl who lives within the woods.  She is Mebh MacTire (Eva Whittaker), a mythical Wolfwalker, just like her mother.  A Wolfwalker is a human who takes the form of a wolf when they sleep.  They also possess supernatural healing powers.  Mebh has lived peacefully with her wolf pack, but the intruding humans are causing an imbalance in nature.  Robyn becomes personally involved in the struggle when she learns first-hand that Mebh's unique shapeshifting abilities can be passed on to others.

Less you think Wolfwalkers is a heavy-handed environmental movie, you would be wrong.  This is a briskly told story about friendship as Robyn and Mebh quickly build a bond that becomes even stronger as the film goes on.  There is also a strong emotional core to the story, as Mebh does not know where her mother is (she left one night, and never came back), and is determined to learn what happened to her, even if that means leaving the safety of the woods.  Robyn has her own personal struggles, as she tries to explain to her father what she has learned from her time in the forest.  This creates a lot of tension that tests the friendship between the two girls.  Robyn simply wants to help her new friend, and as she learns more about the situation, she begins to think the best way to help is to hide the truth from her.  There is a storybook like quality to the screenplay by Will Collins that combines magical whimsy with adventure, and a genuine sense of friendship and discovery.  

This alone would be thrilling, but when you combine this great story with the visual artistry on display, you have a truly enthralling entertainment.  Contrasting the cold, gray steely look of Robyn's village with the fluid autumn-like colors of Mebh's forest is stunning, and creates the proper tone for each scene.  Another highlight is when we get to see the film visualize Mebh's wolf senses of smell and hearing, using some unique animation styles to bring it to life in a way that really needs to be seen.  Just watching these characters move on the screen can be a delight, as everyone moves differently.  There is a freedom to movement here that only animation can provide, especially when the wolf pack are making their way through the forest with an almost water-like flow.  Even smaller moments like when Robyn brushes some leaves out of Mebh's tangled fire-red hair are enchanting to watch.  This is the rare film where not a single scene has not been painstakingly crafted.


Even if 2020 had been a normal year for movie releases, Wolfwalkers would still stand as the very best animated film of the year, likely.  It's enchanting, heartfelt, exciting, and beautifully told in a way few family films are.  The filmmakers have overlooked no detail here, not even the beautiful soundtrack that accompanies the film.  This is the kind of movie that makes you want to see what the studio will do next as soon as possible. 

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Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Mank


Mank
is director David Fincher's first film in six years (his last being 2014's Gone Girl), and is quite frankly his most personal and ambitious.  On the personal side, the script was written by his late father, Jack Fincher, back in the 90s (the film is dedicated to his memory), and is one that the director has wanted to make for a while.  As for the ambitious, this is a full-blooded attempt to recreate the look of a lost 1940s black and white film, from the look to the sound design, and even right down to the "change reel" marks that have been added to the film.  It's something that will probably go over most viewers' heads, but the true cinema lovers watching will no doubt relish in.

Despite his attempts to recreate the look, sound and feel of classic Hollywood, this is surprisingly not an affectionate love letter to old movies.  Rather, he has decided to take a rather broad stab at exploring just how big of a role politics play in the movie business.  It's something that was true back in the 1940s, and is just as much so now.  This is also not a very flattering portrayal of some of the old Hollywood figures that play a part in this story.  These are powerful people, and they use that power to either get what they want, or crush those who are against them.  One of the key pleasures of the film is watching Fincher speculate about how movie mogul Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM Studios (played here by Arliss Howard), used his influence in election campaigns and even helped create propaganda films to smear the opposing candidate.  This is a broad, far-reaching film that covers so many topics and characters that it can be a bit daunting in its first half hour.  But Fincher also makes sure that the audience is having fun while watching this, and never loses a certain devilish sense of humor.

At the center of it all is Gary Oldman, giving a loose and world-weary portrayal as Herman J. Mankiewicz, who as the film opens in 1940 is bedridden after a car accident, frequently drunk, and well past his prime of when he was a respected writer, drama critic, and Hollywood figure.  He has a wife named Sara (Tuppence Middleton), who has put up with a lot when it comes to her husband, and it shows, he's battling a lot of past demons concerning how he sent his life and career spiraling to the bottom, and he now has a 60 day deadline to write what could be the screenplay that will be the work that defines his life.  A 25-year-old Orson Welles (Tom Burke) has struck a deal with RKO Studios to make any movie he wants with complete creative freedom.  Welles and Mankiewicz ("Mank") have a history working together, and he has decided to hire him, perhaps against better judgement, to write for him.  

Knowing Herman's history of alcoholism and gambling, Welles hides his writer away in a ranch in California, which is "dry", so that Mank can focus on writing instead of drinking. (When he hears this, Mank tries to escape from his bed, despite his injured leg.) His only company during the sixty day writing process are a German housekeeper named Fraulein Freda (Monika Grossman), typist Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) who will dictate the script as the writer dreams it up, and actor John Houseman (Sam Troughton), whose main purpose seems to be to keep the writer in line and on schedule.  The film that Herman eventually writes is the first draft for Citizen Kane, and even though the film is being advertised about how that film came to be and the rift that eventually grew between Welles and Mankiewicz over writing and story credit, this is only a small part of the overall narrative.  This is not so much a docudrama on the writing process, as it is a film about Hollywood during this time, and the role that Mankiewicz played.

Taking a time-hopping approach to its narrative, Mank shows us its protagonist both in his prime through numerous flashbacks, and his later years where his brother, writer-producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Tom Pelphrey), tries to persuade Herman to taking a safer project, rather than working on Welles' ambitious and possibly disastrous project that takes a sharp and critical look at the media mogul, William Randolph Hearst (played here by Charles Dance).  The flashbacks looking at Herman's career in Hollywood slowly unravels the reason why he wanted to write this script in the first place.  This is where the real drama of the story comes from, as Herman Mankiewicz finds himself at the mercy of powerful people, fighting against them, and ultimately realizing that he is in a position where he will never win.  This is what leads to a lot of his alcoholism and personal demons.  He sees close friends chewed up and spit out by the politics that run the Hollywood machine, and he sees how it can destroy him as well.  

The time of the 1930s in Hollywood was one of financial depression for most of America, talk of chaos in Germany as the charismatic and dangerous Hitler was rising to power, and powerful studio people like Louis B. Mayer teaming up with Hearst to pull the strings of politics into the direction that they wanted it to go.  As Herman becomes entangled within all of this, he can see what's coming, but he quickly realizes that he is but a small voice in a very loud and angry machine.  We learn of his ties to actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), who is one of the few Hollywood figures from the time period who comes across in a positive light.  Despite the sprawling nature of the film's narrative, Mank is quite often quick paced, can occasionally have a sense of humor to itself, and never gets too bogged down in the details.  I have heard some accuse this of being a cold and unemotional film, but I think that's far from the truth.  I greatly cared about Herman, and how the movie kept on stacking the odds against him as he tried to make it in Hollywood.  This is not an angry or nasty film in the slightest.  It is a story of a man struggling to rise above what he sees going on in the industry.  He may get defeated, but he is never completely down, as evidenced by his actions toward helping his housekeeper that we learn about at one point.

It is true that a lot of the screenplay is made up out of speculation.  The idea that Orson Welles did not deserve sole credit for Citizen Kane dates back to film critic Pauline Kael's 1971 article, Raising Kane, which questioned just how much input he had on the script.  Everyone in the industry and the film fan community seems to have a different view on this subject, so it's perhaps for the best that the making of that seminal film is not the central focus here, but rather a glimpse into the life of Mankiewicz, and what led him to want to write a film that was a thinly-veiled jab at the real life Hearst.  In the end, Fincher has made a wildly entertaining film that asks a lot of "what ifs", and speculates about just what might have happened.  It covers a wide range of questions, gives us its explanation of what happened, and does so in a way that is easy to process, given how vast the film's reach is.  It shows us the power of the movies, its influence, and the behind the scenes influences that go into them.


Much like Martin Scorsese's The Irishman last year, this feels like Netflix gave David Fincher a chance to make the movie he has long wanted to make with few if any compromises.  It's certainly not a wide studio feature, as the subject matter only appeals to a small minority of the audience.  However, the filmmaker has made a movie that is all at once captivating, engaging, and spellbinding, even if you are not up on your Hollywood history.  Mank may not be the movie some are expecting, but it's a great one nonetheless. 

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Saturday, November 28, 2020

Run


The last time writer-director Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian worked together, we got 2018's Searching, a criminally underrated thriller about a father's desperate search for his missing teenage daughter.  It was one of the few films that genuinely surprised me with its plot developments, and I even wound up listing it as one of my 10 favorite films of that year.  Their newest effort, Run, shows that they are just as effective at making a more conventional and straight forward thriller.  Even if it doesn't have the twists and turns of their last movie, this is a highly intense film that is driven by its action and narrow escapes.  

The film also marks an impressive acting debut for its lead star, Kiera Allen, a 22-year-old newcomer who I learned has been bound to a wheelchair since 2014, making her one of the few disabled actors who have had a lead role in a film.  That alone is impressive (and surprising), but she gives a genuinely strong performance here that makes me want to see her again and soon.  She plays Chloe, a bright and inventive 17-year-old who has been chronically ill since birth with heart arrhythmia, hemochromatosis, diabetes, and paralysis.  She has been home schooled her entire life by her protective mother, Diane (Sarah Paulson), and the two share what seems to be a loving and respectful relationship.  Chloe is skilled at engineering, and is waiting for an acceptance letter from the University of Washington so that she can live outside of her home for the first time.  Diane supports her daughter's decision, but whenever the mail arrives, she simply clutches it close to her chest and tells her daughter that she will let her know when the letter from the college comes.

This is one of many small red flags the movie gives us hinting that maybe the relationship between mother and daughter is not what it appears, or perhaps Diane is not okay with Chloe's decision to leave, despite what she insists.  In one of the film's early moments, Diane is at a support meeting for parents with chronically ill children, and she insists to the others that she is fine with her daughter's choice.  However, even at this point in the film, her words sound rehearsed and forced.  This is intentional, and not a knock against Paulson's performance.  And right around this time, Diane introduces a new pill to her daughter's daily medication.  Chloe gets suspicious, but all of her attempts to investigate this new medication seem to get thwarted.  When she goes downstairs to do some on line research on the drug, the house seems to have suddenly lost its internet connection.  Determined to get some answers, Chloe begins looking for the truth, and realizes that maybe everything she has known her whole life is not what she thought.

It's pretty easy to figure out where Run is going.  Within the first 10 or 15 minutes, Paulson's performance as the loving mother gives us plenty of signs that she might be more than just a little bit nuts, and might not have her daughter's best interests in mind.  Like I said, this is a much more conventional thriller than the team's last movie, which delighted in building a mystery and allowing the audience to piece the clues together along with the main character.  This time around, the emphasis is on the film's heroine realizing her life is in danger from this woman who has been protecting her as long as she can remember, and the clever means that she will use to learn the truth and hopefully escape from this situation.  The tense nature comes from the fact that Chloe could get caught in her investigation at any moment, and how she tries to hide what she's doing from her eagle-eyed mom.  Later, the movie becomes a bit more action oriented, as the girl must find a way to escape from different situations given her physical limitations, and is placed in scenarios where help is all around her, but for one reason or another, she cannot speak out.

It is Allen's performance as the young Chloe that carries this whole movie.  She is able to create an intelligent and strong lead character that the audience can immediately get behind.  She uses sympathy and humor to immediately grab the audience's attention, and then she later gets to show her intelligence and spirit when she has to make some daring attempts to either escape or find some information on just what is happening to her.  Some of her attempts to escape confinement are a bit far fetched.  There's one particular scene involving her having to break a window that plays like something out of the 80s TV show MacGyver.  This is not a subtle movie in the slightest, and it becomes less so when Sarah Paulson spends the last half hour or so of the movie screaming most of her lines.  But the film still manages to work, because it does manage to create an air of menace and intensity, and Allen is constantly engaging to watch.


Run
is much more schlocky than Searching was, but that's the kind of movie the filmmakers were going for, and they show a lot of skill in not going too far overboard for the most part, and still holding your attention without getting bad laughs.  It's quick-paced, kind of silly, and probably would have been more fun to watch with an audience (It was originally intended to hit theaters last May on Mother's Day Weekend.) than on Hulu at home.  That does unfortunately remove what could have been a fun extra element of the film, but it still manages to work watching it alone.

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