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Mank

Mank is a film of loving but never hagiographic homage. Shot in pin sharp monochrome and with titles that mimic those of the 1930s, David Fincher’s investigative portrait of screenwriter Herman ‘Mank’ Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) dives into the complex bravado of classic Hollywood with the director’s trademark precision. Working from a screenplay by his father Jack, Fincher’s film is not to be taken as truth and indeed draws attention to its status as artifice and creation. This is appropriate as the narrative follows Mank’s creation of what would become Citizen Kane, interspersed with Mank’s encounters with Hollywood heavyweights including Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore) and, of course, William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Orson Welles (Tom Burke). This fragmentary structure echoes Fincher’s earlier work such as The Social Network and Gone Girl, as well as Kane itself. Like those films the storytelling is impeccable, as Trent Rezvor and Atticus Ross’ score blends with Kirk Baxter’s editing with an elegance comparable to Mank’s writing if not the man himself, a thoroughly sozzled protagonist who bumbles from one social embarrassment to the next. Oldman is electrifying in the lead role, he and the rest of the cast performing like characters from the 30s, and the film’s attention to artifice suggests that the personas we see are themselves performances and remnants of the real people are somewhere inside. This gives the film a bittersweet taste and, while much of it is humorous, come the end there is a genuine sense of pathos and indeed bathos for the balance between creativity with conscience. 

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Godzilla: King of the Monsters

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It may be unfair to review movies on the basis of their comparison to other movies, but it is especially hard not to do so when dealing with franchises and sequels. In the case of Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ ‘Monsterverse’, Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla was a masterpiece, while Jordan Vogt-Roberts Kong: Skull Island was an unexpected delight. Coming after this (super) heavyweight combo, Godzilla: King of the Monsters has a lot to live up to. It does not succeed in this respect, but it would be simplistic to describe its failings as being inevitable, as writer-director Michael Dougherty along with co-writers Dougherty, Max Borenstein and Zach Shields miss two of the fundamental strengths of the previous films. The first is simplicity, as KOTM suffers from too much plot. Godzilla featured monsters that rise, humans that observe, all hell that breaks loose; K:SI was a straightforward land-on-mysterious-island-and-then-wish-you-hadn’t storyline. KOTM features the global organisation Monarch, multiple dormant (and then not so dormant) ‘titans’, eco-terrorists, a fractured family, political and military debates, all of which result in an over-complicated narrative that frequently stops for characters to explain the plot. This narrative murkiness is paralleled with visual darkness and excessive rain, which obscures the visuals. The gloomy visual palette ties to the second major feature missing from this film – awe. Despite the immense scale of the multiple monsters that reclaim the Earth, there is little sense of wonder or grandeur in their presentation. This is unfortunate, because the premise of multiple titans clashing offers great potential, both for long-standing fans of the kaiju genre as well as newcomers.

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That said, there are plenty of monster smack downs which do provide some visceral thrills, especially as Dougherty favours a ground level camera with much handheld work, recalling Godzilla imitator Cloverfield. And while the cumulative marvel and awe are absent, the film does offer individual moments of wonder such as Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) encountering Godzilla up close as well as the early emergence of Mothra. The final images do set up a promising continuation, so here’s hoping the narrative is more straightforward next time.

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Ghostbusters

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Ghostbusters is funny, boisterous, exuberant and in places spectacular. It features comedy, action and respect for its audience. The four protagonists, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) are warm, rounded and have a variety of motivations, including knowledge, creativity and belonging. And while Paul Feig’s remake pays homage to the legacy of the franchise (including some sly cameos by original cast members), it also stakes its own territory with verve and aplomb. While it is far from perfect, it is a perfectly entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.

The misogynistic trolling that preceded this film highlights the need for major blockbusters with female leads whose gender is not an issue. Four men busting the paranormal causes no controversy; therefore neither should four women. The problems with the film can be laid squarely at the feet of co-writer/director Paul Feig. Feig has great comic skills in terms of slapstick set pieces – the Ghostbusters trying out new equipment is a highlight – as well as wacky character banter such as the idiocy of the team’s secretary Kevin (Chris Hemsworth). Feig is less confident with large-scale action sequences, which other directors such as Joss Whedon and Shane Black tackle with grandeur while still maintaining a comedic edge. The finale of Ghostbusters is probably its weakest movement, as all hell literally breaks loose and the film veers unevenly between action and comedy. This can leave the viewer yearning for the sharpness of the inter-character moments when the film is at its most laugh out loud funny.

Feig’s weaknesses aside, his approach to mainstream filmmaking is to be applauded. Over the course of his career, closely tied to the rise of Melissa McCarthy, Feig has taken several genres and stocked them with female characters. His most accomplished film, Bridesmaids, is a romantic comedy, long associated with female audiences. However, entries in this genre often focus as much if not more on the male characters, whereas Bridesmaids focuses squarely on the women with the men very peripheral. The Heat is a buddy cop comedy, which would typically centre on male characters, as would the genre of Spy, but Feig demonstrates that these narratives work just as well with women. The success of these Feig/McCarthy collaborations demonstrates the commercial viability of mainstream movies with women as central characters, and Ghostbusters continues this trend. Now if a majority of studio executives would accept this empirical reality, wouldn’t that be a positive step towards equality?

The Imitation Game

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The opening voiceover of The Imitation Game sets the tone and expectation of the film. Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) instructs his audience to listen carefully and, once the story is completed, make their judgement based on full awareness of the facts. Director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore ensure full appreciation by crafting an extremely precise film that balances the different elements of this important historical story.

In one respect, The Imitation Game is a gripping wartime thriller about the breaking of the Enigma code, a crucial development in the eventual Allied victory over the Nazis. Despite this being a known historical story, The Imitation Game still ratchets up the tension through its focus upon the code-breakers’ painstaking work, complete with frustrations, exultations and very difficult choices. Equally, the film is a portrayal of a man out of place, as Turing is homosexual in a time when it was illegal, and also socially awkward to the point of being aspergic. He is a genius surrounded by people who cannot keep up, and the film contextualises his isolation within his sophisticated intellectual understanding, his social ineptitude and his essential secrecy around his sexuality. The tension between this isolation and essential interactions is the source of both humour and pathos across the film’s three narrative threads.

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The framing narrative takes place in 1951, when Turing is investigated by Manchester police Investigator Nock (Rory Kinnear) on suspicion of Soviet espionage, an investigation that leads to the discovery of Turing’s homosexuality. Turing consequently tells Nock the full story of his work on Enigma between 1939 and 1944, which forms the bulk of the narrative. There are also flashbacks to 1928 and the young Turing’s (Alex Lawther) relationship with Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon). Across these different threads, Turing’s lack of comprehension over social decorum and military officialdom are funny both in terms of his unexpected responses and in highlighting the absurdity in such conventions. Yet these sequences also demonstrate Turing’s difficulty with people, a difficulty that becomes increasingly tragic.

It is to the film’s great credit that it balances its thrills, laughs and tears with perfect precision, as calculated a piece of engineering as the machine Turing builds to decode Enigma. Yet it is in no way a cold film, the emotional distress of Turing as well as those around him including Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) and Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) contrasting with the sneering superciliousness of Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) and the ruthless pragmatism of MI6 director Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong), as well as Nock’s own zeal for his investigation being replaced with dismay over his findings. Everyone is fighting their own war here, and while the casualties may be inevitable, they are engaging and affecting in equal measure.

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