Tag Archives: Gary Oldman

Mank

I was in the right kind of mood to fall in love with a movie, and Mank was it for me.

Sean and I were at the cottage last weekend celebrating his birthday, and it was the first 48 hours I’d spent movie-free all year. Which is weird, considering 2020 will be known, among so many other things, as the year without movies. And yet, if you’re devoted to movie views and reviews, there were actually plenty of films to watch (this is my 428th review this year, not including some of Halloween and Christmas content that I backdate). Still, a lot (most) of the big releases have been delayed and there were perhaps fewer films to really get excited about – most markedly at this time of year, as Christmas is usually the big awards kick-off. So I was ripe to be swept away, ripe to appreciate something big and intentional, thoughtful and well-crafted. Mank was a cinematic gift under my tree this year, and the tag reads ‘With Love from David Fincher.’

Herman J. Mankiewicz (“call me Mank”), having just survived a car crash, is laid up in bed with a broken leg. Recovering in seclusion, and bedridden due to injury, he is perhaps in a wonderful position to do some serious writing, or that’s what Orson Welles is hoping. Orson Welles is a hot shot young director who’s just been given the Hollywood golden ticket, a rare opportunity to have complete creative control over his films. Welles has selected notorious drunk Mankiewicz as his screenwriter, leaving him with a stack of pristine white pages, a nurse, and a typist to get the work done in just a few weeks. What Mank eventually turns in will be a whirlwind, and long-winded, but beautifully written script for what will turn out to be the greatest film ever made: Citizen Kane. David Fincher’s movie takes a closer look at the duress under which that screenplay came to be written, and the Hollywood experiences that inspired it.

1930s Hollywood had a lot of stuff going on: a great depression, a looming war, rising anti-Semitism, the demonization of socialism…it was the Golden Age of Hollywood, but if you rubbed at the gold plating just a little, you could easily expose an awful lot of ugliness. Mank was a skeptic and a scathing social critic. Before he wrote for movies, he wrote for newspapers; he was the Berlin correspondent for the Chicago Tribune but really sharpened his wit as the drama critic for The New York Times and as the first regular drama critic at The New Yorker. When he made the move to Hollywood, Mank was often asked to fix the screenplays of other writers, with much of this work going uncredited. Ultimately he worked on The Wizard of Oz, Man of the World, Dinner at Eight, Pride of the Yankees, and The Pride of St. Louis, and dozens more. He became one of the highest-paid writers in the world, audiences gobbling up his new style of “fast” and “immoral” characters and plot. He wasn’t the most important man in Hollywood but he knew the ones that were – studio head Louis B. Mayer, for example, of whom Mank was not a fan.

David Fincher’s film sees Mank (Gary Oldman) laid up in bed, reflecting on his time in Hollywood, and digesting it into a movie that Welles (Tom Burke) would immortalize, critics would applaud, history would remember, and Hollywood insiders revile, for they knew the man Mank was referencing behind a veil so thin it left very little doubt. The man was of course frenemy and newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).

As typist Rita (Lily Collins) races to keep pace, turning his volumes of scrawls into something legible, Mank writes feverishly and drinks furiously. He has clearly been holding on to a lot of resentment as we flashback to specific events that are easily related to characters and scenes that we know and love from Citizen Kane. Hearst’s mistress, for example, Marion Davies (Amandy Seyfried), an actress for whom Hearst co-founded a movie studio, and to whose career he devoted many headlines throughout his vast media empire. And Mayer (Arliss Howard) at the studio, shamelessly churning out propaganda that would be mistaken for news (fake news, we’d call it in 2020) in order to sway elections. Mank has contempt for them all, and yet he’s able to turn into a script about spiritual corruption into, well, an enjoyable movie about spiritual corruption. It’s beautiful, in its way, in its insight and compassion.

Fincher’s film attracts my attention, my whimsy, and my admiration from the very first frame – from the opening credits, even. It looks and feels like a movie made during the period in which it’s set, and yet it also looks and feels as though it has every benefit that modern 21st century film making has to offer. With the help of cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, Fincher straddles a line of his own making, and manages to lay down on film the very best of both worlds. Mank is textured and technically brilliant. It is a love letter to cinema, to the greatest movie ever made, and to film making itself, by brilliant film maker himself, an auteur, a highly skilled visual storyteller who eschewed film school and cut his teeth instead on Rick Springfield music videos (true story). After making his way through the very best (Madonna, Aerosmith, Iggy Pop, George Michael, Michael Jackson, the Stones), he made the leap to the big screen with 1992’s Alien¬≥ (which also starred Charles Dance, fyi), which wasn’t a critical darling but did take some admirable risks with the franchise’s mythology. Ice broken, Fincher never looked back, and if you’re any kind of cinephile, chances are pretty good at least one of his films is in your top 10 (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network, Gone Girl), yet he’s never won an Oscar for direction, nor have any of his films landed the coveted Best Picture award, though The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seemed a shoo-in with 13 nominations that year (it lost to Slumdog Millionaire). Will this be Fincher’s year?

Mank‘s cast is not to be forgotten, the film’s success in large part thanks to an extremely talented ensemble who really work the material. The razor-sharp dialogue can be a lot of fun, and some of the drunken soliloquies are absolutely the stuff Oscar clips are made of. Gary Oldman of course deserves top credit for portraying a cynic with a secret soft heart, but he’s surrounded by people able to rally, particularly Charles Dance who is most hypnotic as a titan outraged by criticism. The quasi-betrayal between these two men is a magnetic source of conflict and intrigue.

The script too, is something to behold, and it’s perhaps the component that fascinates me most, credited to a Jack Fincher. Any relation, you might ask? Indeed, Jack Fincher is David’s father. David’s dead father, in fact, dead since 2003 in fact. Mank is his only screen credit. Clearly this script has been languishing in a drawer somewhere for quite some time, perhaps its only companion a screenplay about Howard Hughes that never got made once Scorsese chose John Logan’s version for The Aviator. Still, Mank must have been the favourite, since David recalls that as a budding child cinephile shepherded mostly by his father, there was no question which was “the greatest movie ever made.” Of course, that was very much nearly fact for a very long time, the film beloved and admired from the 1950s on (especially once it started being screened on television). It has been the watermark against which all other film is measured, and has informed an entire generation of film makers. Jack Fincher’s script is a clever way to let us celebrate the film once again, and perhaps appreciate some of its most personal influences. The senior Fincher gets lone credit for the script, though the way it proficiently draws such incisive parallels to present day makes it clear that Junior has had a hand in it is well. I wouldn’t be bothered one bit to see Jack Fincher receive an Oscsar nomination for his work, and I do wonder who holds the record for (forgive me) most posthumously awarded recipient.

Mank manages a send up to an entire era of film making while also saluting the man who gave so many favoured films of the time their unique flavour and identity. It’s a peek behind the scenes that isn’t necessarily pretty, but incredibly fascinating, an homage to an undisputed classic that just may turn into a classic itself.

The Courier

Ezekiel Mannings (Gary Oldman) is a very bad man. His job title is literally “crime lord” on his business cards (okay, the business cards are unseen in his wallet but I’m SURE they’re there) and he’s awaiting trial for what I’m also certain is just a small fraction of his many crimes. Or perhaps I should say he is not awaiting trial so much as the trial is waiting to hear from one key witness – Nick Murch (Amit Shah) – whom a federal task force has been protecting so he can deliver his crucial testimony, ie, he saw Ezekiel Mannings murder someone right in the head.

You don’t need to see Mannings’ business card to know he’s a bad guy: he wears an eye patch. Which is a statement. Of Evil. I’ve known a few people without a full set of eyes and they’ve never elected to go with the patch. Glass eyes look surprisingly good if you’ve got a socket that wants filling. The only eye patch I’ve ever seen in real life is the little band-aid coloured ones that kids sometimes wear to help correct a lazy eye, and those are quite adorable and definitely don’t count. I’m talking all-black, special ordered from the pirate store, cover of Evil Monthly magazine, doubling down with a goatee, eye patch.

Nor do you need to see Nick Murch’s business card to know that he’s a nerd. Probably an IT guy. He’s nervous and jittery, and his outfit has definitely not been approved by a woman. I mean, he’s got reason to be nervous and jittery. He IS about to testify against a really bad dude, and the whole case basically hinges on him as a witness. But before he can video conference in (from an unspecified European location), a courier (Olga Kurylenko) arrives at the safe house to deliver a package. Spoiler alert: it’s a bomb. A lot of people die, and someone’s even trying to kill her, but instead of fleeing for her life, she volunteers as Nick’s defacto bodyguard and personal protector. Basically, she and Nick end up fighting for their lives in an underground parking structure, and they’ll have to do it for an hour before the cops arrive (why an hour? who knows. but it’s a great little conceit to put some real-time pressure on the situation). Agent Bryant (William Moseley) and his sniper (Greg Orvis) are particularly persistent.

Is this a good movie? No. We never get a satisfying explanation for why this nameless bike courier would stick around to fight a fight that isn’t hers. Or why she’s so darn good at it; “military” hardly covers it.

The violence is…extensive. As in face caved in. As in literal terminal velocity when a body hits a brick wall so hard the skull cracks open like an egg. As in any foreign object with a somewhat pointed end will soon be lodged in someone’s body cavity. And the victim will always agonizingly pull it out, with a flourish of spurting blood. This became such an odd pattern I started chanting “pull it out!” pull it out!” and they always did, even when it was a 3 foot metal rod through the throat.

And to even out the odds, the bad guys were of course prone to soliloquizing, always pausing for one last smug speech just long enough for the heroes to once again narrowly escape certain death. The brutality was so unending that I didn’t really care which side won as long as everyone just stopped getting up. And also: what’s up with this parking garage where a gun battle to the death can be staged for over an hour and not a single person even ran to their car for a stick of gum? I’m suspicious.

Now there is some merit to a movie with mindless violence, I suppose. A time and a place for it, at any rate. But this wasn’t so much mindless as mind boggling. Turns out the eye patch was the least of my worries.

Dying to know more?

TIFF19: The Laundromat

“Based on actual secrets,” the screen tells us. Based on the trailer, I sort of expected The Laundromat to be the Erin Brockovich of money laundering. It was not. It was actually just a weak and poor copy of The Big Short.

The Big Short was about the Wall Street crash of 2008, more or less, precipitated by the housing bubble. And how all that lending, and then speculating against those bad mortgages, really fucked a lot of good people over. That film wove together a narrative interspersed with attempts to break down financial concepts to the audience. A celebrity – cameos by Margot Robbie or Selena Gomez, for example – would break the fourth wall to address the audience directly, and explain textbook concepts, like subprime mortgages, to us in a way we could easily grasp. It was celebrated for its unconventional techniques, which helped secure it the Oscar for adopted screenplay.

You can’t really blame The Laundromat for trying to capitalize on its success, but when your success is based on novelty and innovation, you pretty much inherently can’t replicate it. To even try seems…lazy.

Meryl Streep stars as an old lady who goes on a pleasure cruise with her husband, played by James Cromwell. An errant wave hits them and the boat capsizes, killing 21. In the wake of the accident, it is discovered that the cruise company is without insurance. Not that they didn’t have any – they thought they did – but that their policy was bought by another company, and another, and possibly another, until all there were were shell companies and no real policy, no real insurers, and definitely no money for the victims of the accident.

But Meryl Streep’s portion of the film is just one third of what we’re ultimately presented with. The other stories are only loosely connected by a law firm that exists just to hide money for its obscenely wealthy companies. The lawyers, played by Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman, serve not just as characters, but also as narrators who get to skip through all the scenes, breaking the fourth wall and revealing the film’s sets to be just that: sets. It’s all very meta. And while these characters are a lot of fun, it stinks so badly of The Big Short you can never quite forgive it, even when it’s entertaining.

Based on the Panama Papers leak, the movie tries to reveal even just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the rich getting richer: tax evasion, bribery, fraud, offshore accounts. But it’s sloppily assembled and is such a weak photocopy you can’t help but resent it outright. This is actually a very important issue that absolutely deserves our attention. But Steven Soderbergh just can’t pull this together, and in fact confuses the matter with his weird, episodic vignettes and title cards that just don’t add up. I’m just a lowly 99-percenter who pretends saving is optional and credit is use it or lose it. What do I know? Besides, you know, wanting my money back for this movie ticket.

Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour should maybe be called Darkest Month. In 1940, Winston Churchill was asked by the King to take over as Prime Minister. It was a shitty time to get the job: Hitler was marching his Nazi army across Europe, and the threat of invasion was uncomfortably close. During this particular month, Churchill’s first on the job, he’s got an impossible task. He must decide whether to negotiate a treaty with Hitler, or whether to stand firm against the Nazis but in so doing risk his country. And he had to do this without his party’s support or the public’s understanding or any help from the King.

Winston Churchill is an iconic and influential figure in British history and he’s been portrayed with varying success by some truly venerable actors: ¬†Albert Finney, lead_960Brendan Gleeson, Timothy Spall, Robert Hardy, and most recently by John Lithgow in The Crown. He is not a saintly figure. He was a great orator but had some problematic positions that hindsight can’t afford to be kind about. Portrayals of him often emphasize his omnipresent cigar, and his particular style of speech (his custom dentures helped cover up a lisp). Gary Oldman is the gentleman tasked with bring old Winnie to life in Darkest Hour, and though he’s seen chomping on the necessary cigars, he turns the performance into something truly remarkable.

Oldman is transformed by makeup and prosthetics; his jowls are considerable. His tics and posture help render him unrecognizable. He dissolves into character. As Churchill he delivers some of history’s most famous and familiar speeches and he is electrifying. Kristin Scott Thomas as his tell-it-like-it-is wife, Lily James as his newbie secretary, and Ben Mendelsohn as the King help round out the cast but Darkest Hour feels like a one man show and Oldman is equal to the cast. Truthfully I don’t know many others who could carry 125 minutes of infamy, but Gary Oldman deserves his frontman status in all the Oscar pools. His portrayal is vigorous and complex and maybe even a little bit compassionate.

As for the movie itself, it’s not quite as formidable. The events are told simply, without a lot of cinematic flair, and it sometimes feels sluggish. There’s not a lot of imagination on display, and perhaps that’s an unfair criticism with the burden of historical accuracy weighing heavily, but director Joe Wright is more precise than entertaining. It’s Oldman who kept me in my seat, and I’m sure it’ll be Oldman bounding out of his on Oscar night to collect his well-deserved award.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

The following paragraphs will make you think I haven’t seen The Hitman’s Bodyguard; let me assure you, I have. But I will struggle to summarize its plot. Or even locate the plot from between all the gratuitous explosions. I think it goes like this: Ryan Reynolds was once the caviar of bodyguards, but he let some VIP get shot in the brains, and now he’s been downgraded to the spam of bodyguards, which is really, really embarrassing and he’d do just about anything to be caviar again.

Meanwhile: Samuel L. Jackson is a hitman who is safely in prison. BUT he’d also be an excellent witness in an international court of law against a crazed, genocidal Hitmans-Bodyguard-The-5-NewsBelorussian dictator (Gary Oldman). So he cuts a deal: if they let out his wife (Selma Hayek), he’ll give testimony. The only catch is that every other witness has been systematically murdered. Sam Jackson nearly is as well, but one of Ryan Reynolds’ disgruntled CIA exes calls him in at the last minute to try to get Jackson to the Hague in one piece.

I suspect that this movie is bad because it never slows down long enough for you to ask yourself whether you’re enjoying things. The thing feels like it’s been edited by a two year old high on 5 juice boxes. It relies HEAVILY on the odd couple banter between Ryan and Sam, but if this is a Deadpool wannabe, it should wannabe harder. I feel like I just ran an obstacle course and I’m just so grateful to have crossed the finish line I cannot recall a single event along the way. Bleeding eardrums, I think. Some tulips? A car that smells like ass. The Hitman’s Bodyguard may not be an actual movie but just a compilation video of Reynolds’ and Jackson’s greatest hits. Lots of motherfuckers. Lots of explodey explosions. I refuse to overthink this one.

The Space Between Us

An astronaut behaved irresponsibly and went on the first mission to Mars pregnant. Never mind that they won’t even do surgery on me without double checking that I’m fetus-free, somehow they let this woman go into space without peeing on a stick and they blame HER. Even when she dies in childbirth. It’s such a shameful scandal that they decide to keep her pregnancy and the resulting baby a secret from everyone watching on Earth…which means they raise her kid on Mars and no one outside a select few astronauts even knows he exists.

The kid, Gardner (Asa Butterfield), now in his teens, has lived entirely on Mars. He’s only MV5BZjhjMjFjNzctOGE0OC00NmM1LWEzOWQtOTczOTEzNmNmNWVmL2ltYWdlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjk0NDk2ODc@._V1_.jpgmet about a dozen other people, all astronauts colonizing Mars, including Kendra (Carla Gugino), the woman who is quasi-raising him. He’s smart, as someone raised by a team of scientists would tend to be, and he finds a way to have secretive chats with Earth-girl Tulsa (Britt Robertson). She doesn’t know who he really is, and wouldn’t believe him anyway. But when he shows up at her school (after a months-long journey of course) she is still keen to go on a father-finding adventure with him, while he marvels, mouth agape, at all the wonderful Earthy things he’s only read about in books. Kendra and program director Nathanial (Gary Oldman) chase after him, knowing his organs cannot withstand Earth’s atmosphere.

You might think that the teen romance genre and the sci-fi genre are not natural bedmates, and that’s a fair worry, but it’s not what troubles the movie. The movie failed way before that. There’s actually not much space between the leads, who spend more of the movie sharing a truck cab than on two separate planets. But what we really need to be concerned about is the excruciating nonsense between them. The uncomfortable schmaltz between them. The insane leaps of logic between them. The unforgivable cliches between them.

The movie just doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s not even charming as a fish-out-of-water story because there’s little time between them to stop and smell the roses. This movie is a time-waster at best – not a memorable one, and not an entertaining one. If it was titled The Waste of Space Between Us, at least you’d know what you were in for.