Mank: Sole author or just another citizen in Welles' army?
No matter how lofty one’s stature as an artist or how impeccable one’s list of accomplishments, there will always be someone out there sporting a pair of steel-toed loafers for the soul (and sole) purpose of booting a deity from the Pantheon. ‘Tippi’ Hedren built a career off of bad-mouthing Alfred Hitchcock. Reviews of Jerry Lewis’ movies read like critical contract killings. But not even the National Enquirer could have concocted a slam as spurious and mean-spirited as the one Pauline Kael leveled against Orson Welles. And David Fincher’s Mank picks up where Kael left off.
The title is short for Herman J. Mankiewicz, a prolific screenwriter who, in addition to having a hand in writing Citizen Kane, gifted audiences with untold hours spent pleasurably in the dark (Dinner at Eight, The Wizard of Oz, Christmas Holiday). The script, written by the director’s late father Jack Fincher, uses as its base of operation, amid the myriad of Kane-inspired flashbacks, a Victorville Hotel. It was there that Mankiewicz, incapacitated after a car accident left him nursing a broken leg, dictated the script to secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins). In his attempt to assign sole authorship to his subject, Fincher forgets to mention a version of the script Welles was simultaneously working on back in Beverly Hills.
Fincher takes delight in recreating Hollywood’s golden era, maneuvering his camera through a backlot surging with a sea of full-dress extras. Inside the walls, the story conference participants seated in David O. Selznick’s office read like a Who’s Who? of screenwriting bluebloods. Joining Mankiewicz are George S. Kaufman, S.J. Perelman, Charles McArthur, Ben Hecht, etc. The round-the-horn story improv ends with the new kid on the block — in this case, Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross) — being asked, “Why don’t you tell him how it ends?”
Kael’s decision to target the film of films as a means to elevate her solidly-established anti-auteur profile defies reason. Welles joins D.W. Griffith, Tex Avery, and Jean-Luc Godard as one of the rare few who can lay claim to forever changing the face of cinema. Was it his arrogance, his youth, or both that aroused envy? During the days of the studio system, film production was an old man’s game. Where does a 24-year-old pisher get off co-writing and directing what many consider to be the one film deserving the title of all-time greatest? Any film critic-historian (Robert L. Carringer, Andrew Sarris, Peter Bogdanovich, Joseph McBreide, Jonathan Rosenbaum, etc.) worth their salt rose to Welles’ defense by acknowledging his contributions to the script. As for Fincher, I can appreciate a son wanting to honor his dad, just not when Pop has lies to peddle.
Told in flashback, Fincher borrows heavily from Kane’s labyrinthian structure and baroque opulence, right down to the melting ice sculpture replicating the ones found at its subject’s birthday party. But it’s impossible to believe that the destruction of the second Mrs. Kane’s bedroom was penned just moments after a visit to Victorville finds Welles shattering Mankiewicz’s liquor cabinet. And was the drive through the desert to the hotel meant to be an homage to the second unit ride to the Mirador Motel in Touch of Evil?
Thankfully, Fincher doesn’t confine himself solely to the chapter of Mankiewicz’s life dealing with Mr. Welles. His battle against Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) over a fictionalized newsreel the two whipped up to quash the political aspirations of socialist Upton Sinclair is far more interesting than the story of an inveterate alcoholic who stays focused long enough to write the great American screenplay, only to have it snatched from him by a satanic upstart. Allegedly. I would prefer a film about Mankiewicz’s much-warranted disgust with MGM’s boy wonder Thalberg to a continuation of Kael’s fairy tale. ★★
Video on Demand New Release Roundup
Black Bear — No one can tolerate Allison’s (Aubrey Plaza) on-set behavior, so the actress sets her sights on another form of torture: directing. Creative juices all but parched, Allison opts to spend a little emotional tuneup time at a woodsy bed and breakfast owned and operated by an unhappily married couple: musician Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and pregnant wife Blair (Sarah Gadon). In the time it takes to carry her bags to the house, Allison’s host has already hit on his paying customer. After dinner, and with the lugubriously lubricating aid of a bottle of wine, Allison watches as the couple act out their rage in a manner that makes Albee’s George and Martha look like Blondie and Dagwood. So far, nothing we’ve seen rings even remotely true, starting with the premise. A retreat epitomizes alone time, not a place one goes when in need of a bout of relationship counseling with the hired help. This all changes when, halfway through the film, roles reverse and we leave our one-act play for a film-within-a-film about the making of the one-act play. At one point, Allison is described as “hard to read,” an insight that applies to the actress as well. Plaza has built a career leaving audiences trying to outguess her every move. If you’re a Plaza-watcher waiting for her ship to come in, the Queen Mary just docked. She’s never been better. Too bad the performance is housed in a technical exercise gone awry. Directed by Lawrence Michael Levine. 2020 —S.M. ★★
Freaky — The superimposed text reads “Wednesday the 11th,” but its purpose is not to establish time, place, or even herald a film-within-a-film parody. For all the good it does, the latest Blumhouse Production might just as well greet us with: Warning: Secondhand Horror Comedy Ahead. Not that the idea of spinning a horror-reversal on the Disney family comedy Freaky Friday is a bad one, but must everything play out in such a familiar manner? Vince Vaughn doesn’t get the recognition he deserves; there aren’t too many comedians currently at work who possess the actor’s sly slobbery and innate ability to use it to occasion laughter. Watching him unleash his inner teenage girl justifies the download,;just be prepared to endure the malevolent reprisal of his junior counterpart (Kathryn Newton) as she mows down the cardboard enemies that were determined before the transformation. Directed and co-written by Paranormal Activity 2-4 scribe Christopher Landon. 2020 —S.M. ★
The Twentieth Century — It’s rare to find female characters behind more convincing mustaches than their male counterparts, but then again, it’s even more uncommon for a film to come along that defies classification. How else does one account for a subject as potentially lethal as the fall and rise to power of Canadian Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne) being transformed into visual perfection? Like being hit with a warm sock filled with splendor, writer-director Matthew Rankin’s debut feature portrays real life as a kaleidoscopic, fantasy-filled ride through Canadian history. (Imagine how much more colorful and commanding high school history classes would have been had our teachers shared imaginations similar to that of Rankin.) The lightbox composition at once calls to mind such seemingly diverse temperaments as Powell and Pressburger and David Lynch. Two complaints, starting with Rankin’s maddeningly maddened ripoff of fellow Canadian Guy Maddin. Both appeal to one’s primitive instincts with their uncanny ability to fictionalize in historical context, but Maddin’s fingerprints are all over his. And even this indefatigable connoisseur of bodily functions humor inside me was more than a bit rankled over the profusion of sudorific giggles, most notably the ejaculating cactus. Don’t let that dissuade you. The third act drags, but nothing we’ve seen this year can match this Century’s visual wit and splendor. 2019 —S.M. ★★★★