The Films of 2020: Mank (dir by David Fincher)


As I watched David Fincher’s latest film, Mank, my main feeling was one of wanting to like the film more than I actually did.

I mean, really, the film sounds like it was specifically made to appeal to me.  It’s a film about the Golden Age of Hollywood, which is an era that has always fascinated me as both a film lover and history nerd.  Even more specifically, it’s a film about the writing of Citizen Kane, which is one of my favorite movies.  (On one of our first dates, Jeff and I snuck into a showing of Citizen Kane at the Magnolia.  The crime was fun and finally getting to see the movie on the big screen was even better.)  It’s a film that features a host of historical figures, everyone from Louis B. Mayer to Irving Thalberg to Orson Welles to William Randolph Hearst to Marion Davies to the title character himself, the self-destructive screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.

Those historical figures are played by a truly impressive collection of actors, almost all of whom give memorable performances.  Gary Oldman plays Mankiewicz, lurching about Hollywood in a drunken haze and calling out the system while, somewhat hypocritically, also attempting to profit from it.  Charles Dance is compellingly arrogant as William Randolph Hearst.  Tom Burke captures Orson Welles’s trademark voice and charisma, making an impression despite having surprisingly little screen time.  Ferdinand Kingsley plays Irving Thalberg and steals nearly every scene in which he appears.  Arliss Howard is a marvel as the manipulate Mayer while Amanda Seyfried gives the best performance of her career so far as Marion Davies.  The film portrays Davies as being intelligent, witty, and perhaps the only truly honest person in Hollywood.  If it can be argued that Citizen Kane robbed Davies of her dignity, it can also be argued that Mank makes a sincere attempt to give it back to her.  With the exception of a distracting cameo from Bill Nye (yes, the science guy), Mank is perfectly cast.

And yet, despite all of that, the film never really engaged me on either an emotional or an intellectual level.  The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous but the film plods from one incident to another, skipping back and forth in time and trying to convince us that Herman J. Mankiewicz was a more fascinating figure than he comes across as being.  For the most part, Mankiewicz comes across as being a bit of a bore and the film makes the classic mistake of assuming that we’ll naturally like him just because he’s the main character.  Gary Oldman is as charismatic as ever but the film doesn’t give him much of character to play.  Mankiewicz stumbles from scene to scene, searching for a drink and always complaining about one thing or another.  A little bit of Herman J. Mankiewicz goes a long way and, once it becomes apparent that he’s going to spend the entire film perpetually annoyed, Mankiewicz becomes a rather uninteresting character.  Long before this film even reached the halfway mark, I was on the side of everyone who wanted Mankiewicz to stop talking and just finish writing the damn script.

If you’re one of the ten or so people who is still outraged over the failure of Upton Sinclair’s 1934 gubernatorial campaign, you’ll probably enjoy this film.  For those of you haven’t read Greg Mitchell’s The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics, Upton Sinclair was a writer and longtime socialist activist who won the 1934 Democratic nomination to run for governor of California.  Despite garnering a lot of national attention with his End Poverty In California (EPIC) platform, Sincliar was overwhelmingly defeated by Republican Frank Merriam.  Mank argues that Sinclair’s defeat was largely due to dirty tricks and negative campaigning, most of it masterminded by Mayer and Hearst.  Mankiewicz is a Sinclair supporter who is angered by the underhanded efforts of Mayer and Hearst.  The script for Citizen Kane is, at least partially, Mankiewicz’s revenge on Hearst and Mayer for working against Sinclair and it’s something that Mankiewicz feels so strongly about that he’s willing to demand that Orson Welles give him credit for his work on the screenplay.  It’s a legitimate theory, but the film’s exploration of it feels rather shallow and intellectually lazy.  Just as it did with the character of Mankiewicz, the film makes the mistake of assuming the audiences will automatically find the candidacy of Upton Sinclair to be as inspiring as the film does.  The film continually insists that we should care but, when it finally has a chance to show us why Upton Sinclair’s campaign was important, all it can provide is Bill Nye The Science Guy, standing on a platform and complaining about religious hypocrisy.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of a casual acquaintance demanding to know why his twitter feed didn’t convince you to vote for Bernie Sanders.

From a historical point of view, the film does itself no favors by creating a fictional friend of Mankiewicz’s, one who is so consumed with guilt over his part in defeating Upton Sinclair that he ends up committing suicide.  It feels rather cheap and predictable, an easy way to give Mankiewicz some sort of motivation beyond being infatuated with Marion Davies.  Historically, the truth of the matter is that Frank Merriam turned to the left as soon as he was elected and Upton Sinclair went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for writing a series of now-unreadable books about an international do-gooder named Lanny Budd.  Meanwhile, director Felix E. Feist (who was responsible for shooting many of the anti-Sinclair newsreels that MGM released into cinemas) went on to have a very long career and never indicated that he felt any guilty for playing a part in Sinclair’s defeat.

Like many of David Fincher’s film, Mank works best as an exercise in style.  The black-and-white cinematography is to die for.  Some of the shots — especially early in the film — are breathtaking.  Mankiewicz may spend the majority of the film railing against the excesses of Hollywood but, visually, Fincher can’t get enough of them.  Indeed, much as with The Social Network, Fincher seems to be spend the majority of the film at odds with the the film’s overwritten and rather pompous script.  (Of course, Mank was written by Fincher’s late father while The Social Network was written by Aaron Sorkin.  While there’s a lot to criticize about Jack Fincher’s script, one can still be thankful that he wrote the script instead of Sorkin.  One can only imagine how Marion Davies would have been portrayed if Aaron Sorkin had been involved.)  Mank is narratively deficient but visually stunning.  The film’s script rather snarkily dismisses Orson Welles as being a mere “showman” but, as film, Mank proves that sometimes a showman is exactly what’s needed.

The Films of 2020: Possessor (dir by Brandon Cronenberg)


Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is a professional assassin.

That really shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.  For whatever reason, films about assassins have become very popular over the past few years and those assassins are often women.  However, what sets Tasya apart from other assassins is the technique that she uses.  Under the direction of Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Tasya can possess someone else’s body.  While controlling that other person’s body, Tasya commits her murders and then commits suicide.  The host dies while Tasya’s mind returns to her original body.  The media then reports that the murder was some sort of random incident and, with the killer dead by their own hand, their true motives will probably never be known.  It’s an outlandish premise and yet, it’s one that feels oddly plausible.  Most mass shootings and random acts of violence remain a mystery precisely because their perpetrators often take their own lives.  Three years after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, we still don’t know why Stephen Paddock opened fire on a music festival in Las Vegas.  We’ve become conditioned, I think, to accept that these things just happen.

Wisely, Possessor doesn’t go into too much details about just how exactly Tasya possesses other people.  We see that it involves a lot of odd technology and we also discover that Tasya struggles to return to her “normal” self after her mind returns to her body.  That’s really all we need to see.  Too many films make the mistake of trying to explain all of the little details, as if the audience is going to be concerned as to whether or not a film about possession is 100% plausible.  The director of Possessor, Brandon Cronenberg, understands that all he really has to do is make it look convincing.  He doesn’t have to explain it and, indeed, there’s much that Cronenberg doesn’t explain.

Tasya’s latest assignment takes her into the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), who is engaged to marry the daughter of arrogant businessman named John Parse (Sean Bean).  Colin and Tasya find themselves fighting for control of Colin’s body.  Even while Tasya is setting up the circumstances that will lead to Colin killing both his girlfriend and her father, Colin is resisting and struggling to take control.  It all leads to some disturbingly surreal imagery, as well as some shockingly gory violence.  There’s a lot of blood in Possessor.  Both figuratively and literally, Possessor is a film that’s obsessed with what lies under the skin.  Throughout the film, bodies and minds are ripped open and what we discover inside of them is frequently grotesque.

Possessor is a film that raises a lot of questions and which often refuses to provide easy answers.  Does Girder sincerely care about Tasya or is she just manipulating her emotions to get the result that she desires?  Who exactly does Girder work for?  Does Tasya truly want to get back together with her estranged husband, Michael (Rossif Sutherland)?  Is Michael as clueless as he seems or does he secretly understand that Tasya is lying whenever she says that she has to go away on business?  Possessor is not always an easy film to follow but Cronenberg’s visuals are so strong and the performances are so wonderfully off-center that it remains enthralling regardless of whether or not it always makes it sense.  By the time one person is wearing someone else’s face as a mask, it’s pretty much impossible to look away.

With its emphasis on body horror and loss of identity (as well as its chilly Canadian setting), Possessor has a lot in common with the early work of David Croneberg.  That’s perhaps not surprising, considering that Possessor was directed by David’s son, Brandon Cronenberg.  Unfortunately, Possessor doesn’t really have the same dry sense of humor that distinguished David Cronenberg’s best films.  (David Cronenberg was, in his way, as much of a satirist as a horror director and Possessor doesn’t quite have the same subversive charge as something like Rabid or Shivers.)  That said, Possessor is still a fascinating and enthralling film, one that will stick with you long after it ends.

Here’s The Trailer for Possessor!


Starring Christopher Abbott, Andrea Riseborough, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuppence Middleton and Sean Bean, Possessor is the new film from Canadian filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg!  And yes, if you’re wondering, Brandon is the son of the iconic horror director, David Cronenberg.

Possessor is a film about an elite assassin who can inhabit other people’s bodies.  The film made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, way back in January.  At the time, the critics loved it.  Speaking for myself, I’ve heard wonderful things about the film and I can’t wait to see it.  Possessor will be released on October 9th.

Here’s the trailer!

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Imitation Game (dir by Morten Tyldum)


The 2014 film, The Imitation Game, takes place in three very different time periods.

The majority of the film takes place during World War II.  While the Germans are ruthlessly rolling across and conquering huge swaths of Europe, the British are desperately trying to, at the very least, slow them down.  A key to that is decrypting the secret codes that the German forces use to communicate with each other.  Since the Germans change the code every day, the British not only have to break the code but also predict what the next day’s code will be.

Working out of a 19th century mansion called Bletchley Park, a small group of mathematicians, chess players, and spies work to design a machine that will be able to decode the German messages.  Heading up this group is a man named Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Alan is a remote and, at times, rather abrasive figure, a man who appears to be more comfortable dealing with equations than with other human beings.  The people working under him occasionally chafe at Alan’s lack of social skills.  Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) suspects that Alan’s a Russian spy and would just as soon close down the entire operation.  At first, the only person who seems to have any faith in Alan’s abilities appears to be Winston Churchill himself.

It’s only when Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightley) joins Alan’s team that they start to make progress.  Joan brings Alan out of his shell and teaches him how to deal with other human beings.  When Joan’s parents object to her being away from home, Alan even offers to marry her.  Of course, Alan also explains that it would just be a marriage of convenience, one that will last until they get Christopher up and working.

Christopher is the name that Alan has given to his encryption machine.  Why Christopher?  Throughout the film, we get flashbacks to Alan’s time in boarding school and his close friendship to another student, a boy named Christopher.

And finally, serving as a framing device to both the World War II intrigue and Alan’s relationship with Christopher, is a scene that’s set in 1951.  Alan’s home has been broken into and, as the police investigate the matter, they come to realize that Alan is hiding something about both his past and his present.  Their initial assumption is that Alan must be a communist spy.  The truth, however, is that Alan is gay.  And, in 1951 Britain, that is a criminal offense….

The Imitation Game is based on a true story.  During World War II, Alan Turing actually was a codebreaker and he did play a pivotal role in creating the machine that broke the German code.  After World War II, Turing was arrested and charged with “gross indecency.”  Given a choice between imprisonment or probation and chemical castration.  Turing selected the latter and committed suicide in 1954.  Alan Turing’s work as a cryptographer is estimated to have saved 14 million lives during World War II but he died a lonely and obscure figure, a victim of legally sanctioned prejudice.

Admittedly, The Imitation Game does take some liberties with history.  For one thing, most of the people who worked with Turing described him as being eccentric but not anti-social.  Though the film pretty much portrays the decoding machine as solely being Turing’s creation, it was actually a group effort.  Perhaps the biggest liberty that the film takes is that the machine was never called Christopher.  Instead, it was called Victory.

That said, The Imitation Game is still a strong and effective film.  Anchored by a brilliant lead performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game is a film that manages to be both inspiring and infuriating at the same time.  It’s impossible not to get caught up in the team’s joy as they realize that they actually can beat the Germans at their own encryption game and, after spending 90 minutes listening to everyone doubt Alan’s abilities, you’re more than ready to see him and his unorthodox methods vindicated.  And yet, because of the film’s framing device, you already know that Alan is not going to get the credit that he deserves for his hard work.  Instead, he’s going to be destroyed by the laws of the very country that he worked so hard to save.  Success and tragedy walk hand-in-hand throughout The Imitation Game and the end result is a very powerful and very sad movie.

I have to admit that it was a bit jarring when the opening credits appeared onscreen and the first words that I read were “The Weinstein Company Presents.”  It’s only been a year and a half since Harvey Weinstein was finally exposed and forced out of power but it’s still easy to forget just how much the Wienstein Company used to dominate every Oscar season.  In many ways, with its historical setting and its cast of up-and-coming Brits, The Imitation Game feels like a typical Weinstein Company Oscar contender.  In this case, The Imitation Game was nominated for a total of 8 Oscars, including Best Actor for Benedict Cumberbatch, Best Supporting Actress for Keira Knightley, Best Director for Morten Tyldum, Best Adapted Screenplay for Graham Moore, and Best Picture.  In the end, only Moore won his category.  In a decision that continues to confound me, the Academy named Birdman the best film of the year.

Trailer: Jupiter Ascending


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The Wachowskis, Andy and Lana, have a new film set for release in early 2015. Jupiter Ascending was suppose to come out in 2014, but things happened and now it’s been pushed back for a February 2015 release.

Such a drastic delay in release usually means something major on the negative side of the ledger has occurred and the studio in charge of it’s release have little to no faith in the film. Has Warner Bros. Studios lost faith in the latest Wachowski offering? Is Jupiter Ascending the hot mess that it has been rumored about? Is the grandiose space opera the film is being made out to be making studio exec’s nervous?

So, many questions that most people who like to dwell on the in’s and out’s of filmmaking and the business of making them are probably asking themselves.

My only concern is that the Wachowskis have taken the extra time to make the film they set out to make. They’re one of the few filmmakers who seem to always get to do the sort of dream projects that more successful directors rarely get a chance to or even attempt to try. Whether it’s The Matrix, Speed Racer or Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis have danced to their own tune and for some reason Warner Bros. continue to give them big-budgets after big-budgets to get their next dream project made into reality.

Here’s to hoping Guardians of the Galaxy being such a huge success will help this upcoming space opera turn it’s February release (usually a place where films go to die) into a new addition to the resurgence of the space opera.