David Fincher

Mank

04/12/20

Netflix

It seems I’ve been waiting for this film for just about forever. Director David Fincher first mentioned it as a possible follow up to Alien3 way back in 1992. With a screenplay by his father, Jack, it would focus on the creation of Citizen Kane. It would provide an answer to how much involvement Orson Welles actually had in the writing of that Oscar-winning screenplay and it would, of course, look into the allegations that the film was besmirched by the machinations of powerful newspaper tycoon, William Randolph Hearst.

Was I up for this? Yes, big time, because this is a story that has fascinated me since my youth. But, as it turned out, I was going to have to be patient…

And now, in one of the bleakest years in human history, it finally turns up, virtually unannounced on Netflix. Needless to say, I don’t allow a great deal of time to elapse before I tune in.

And it’s worth the wait. This is absolutely sumptuous, oozing class from every beautiful monochromatic frame, courtesy of cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt. Here is a faultless recreation of an era, right down to the visible scene descriptions, written clickety-clackety on a manual typewriter. From the opening credits onwards, Mank puts the viewer slap-bang in the early 1940s and keeps them immersed in that turbulent era right up until the final credits.

Washed-up screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) finds himself installed in a remote desert location, shortly after suffering serious injuries in a car crash. Sternly monitored by John Houseman (Sam Troughton) and ably assisted by English secretary, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), he has been given the daunting task of writing the debut motion picture for Mercury Theatre’s Wunderkind, Orson Welles (Tom Burke). And he has just sixty days in which to do it.

It doesn’t help that Mank (as he is known to his friends) is an alcoholic. But he sets about the task with as much vigour as he can muster and, as he writes, his mind skips back and forth (rather like the screenplay he’s working on) over his changing fortunes in the Hollywood film industry.

We encounter Mank’s hostile relationship with muck-raking press baron, Hearst (Charles Dance), his platonic friendship with Hearst’s wife, Marion Davies (an almost luminous Amanda Seyfried), and his pugilistic dealings with the extremely unlikable Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard). There’s more – much more – in a packed two hours and eleven minutes; indeed, it’s probably fair to say that this is a story as rich and multi-layered as Kane itself. It’s also surprisingly prescient. The realisation that a super-rich newspaper proprietor can exert a powerful influence over the politics of a country, even going so far as to film fake news items to help steal an election, seems like a decidedly contemporary notion… but clearly that kind of thing has been going on for decades.

The film isn’t quite perfect. A scene where Mank goes on a (very long) drunken diatribe at one of Hearst’s lavish parties stretches credulity, and there are a few leaden missteps around the middle section, but these are minor blips in something that’s a giant step up from much of the so-so fodder that gets made. Fincher has created a warm, and moving testimonial to his late father’s memory, one that deserves to stand alongside the infamous movie it commemorates. Of course, it helps if you’re a fan of Kane in the first place, but it’s by no means essential.

If you’ve a couple of hours to spare, why not spoil yourselves? This is a superb piece of cinema.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead

02/12/20

Netflix

With David Fincher’s Mank due to appear on Netflix any day now, this seems like the perfect moment to have a closer look at the maverick genius, Orson Welles. Mank is all about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, and the making of Citizen Kane. For many decades consistently referred to as ‘the best movie ever made,’ it certainly was an absolute game changer when it appeared in 1941. Welles was only 24 years old at that point – but, mostly due to the awful treatment he subsequently received from his peers in Hollywood, he would never achieve such dizzy heights again.

Also on Netflix is this gem – a documentary about the great director’s long (and ultimately doomed) attempts to create one final movie, The Other Side of the Wind. The film, as meticulously reconstructed from a series of outtakes by Welles’ old buddy, Peter Bogdanovich, can also be found on Netflix if you look hard enough, but it’s this vivid documentary that makes for the better watch. Narrated by Alan Cummings, directed by Morgan Neville and starring a whole cavalcade of Welles’ former friends and acquaintances, it gives an all-too-clear indication of the kind of mayhem that ebbed and flowed around the great man during the film’s troubled shoot. (You can almost smell the hashish blasting around the likes of Dennis Hopper, John Huston and Rich Little as they stumble around the set, vainly trying to work out exactly what Welles is attempting to do.) But TOSOTW had other problems to contend with, not least having the movie’s master print seized and locked up by the Shah of Iran – one of Welles’ shady backers.

Did Welles deserve to be regarded as a cinematic genius? Oh, yes, definitely. Was he treated abominably by the country that spawned him? Most assuredly. Hollywood may belatedly have offered him a trumped-up award for cinematic achievement, but nobody was ready to back up any of his enterprises with hard currency. In retrospect, it seems that they were simply trying to absolve their own collective guilt.

But it’s important to point out that, through a career plagued by adversity, Welles did somehow manage to create some astonishing films. Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Trial, A Touch of Evil… and also, some of the best Shakespeare adaptations ever committed to celluloid – Chimes at Midnight is frankly extraordinary. This is a decent legacy for any director to leave behind, let alone one who started so promisingly and thereafter had every kind of shit heaped on his shoulders. He developed a reputation for being hard to get on with, but is it any wonder?

If you haven’t seen this, do take the opportunity to catch up with it and, if you’re feeling brave, move on to The Other Side of the Wind. Sure, it’s a tad incoherent and I’m really not sure about the film within a film – the one that clearly sets out to rubbish the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini, but… imagine how good it might have been if only Welles’ had the budget he needed to do it properly.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Gone Girl

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4/10/14

David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s twisted page-turner is a classier affair than the actual book – but as with Before I Go To Sleep, having read the work beforehand is a definite disadvantage, because this is a story that gets its chops from the bigĀ reveals it occasionally drops into the proceedings.

On the day of his fifth anniversary, bar owner Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) comes home to find that his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) has gone missing. Signs in the house suggest that she hasĀ been abducted. A police investigation ensues and as it unfolds, Nick begins to look more and more suspicious… does he actually know more about Amy’s disappearance than he is letting on? It would be a crime to reveal too much of the plot machinations here because Gone Girl is all about plot. Indeed, Flynn pushes the various twists and turns to such an extent that, in book form at least, the story starts to seem somewhat risible. But Fincher is so adept at creating atmosphere, it’s easier to overlook such shortcomings on the big screen. What’s more he has cast the film so shrewdly, that we believe in characters that on paper seem flimsy.

The book’s conclusion was a particular disappointment for me, but again, Fincher manages to make it work. This is an assured production that never loses momentum and which serves its source material well. If you haven’t already read the novel, maybe you should wait until after you’ve seen the film.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney