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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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Gone Girl

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David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel features many of the director’s trademark features. Like his previous films, the predominant colour scheme is brown, as director of photography Jeff Cronenweth brings a dark beauty to the digital visuals (although there were points when things could have been a little brighter). Much like Panic Room and Zodiac, it is detailed to a forensic degree, which is appropriate for a film which centres around a mysterious disappearance and is concerned with artifice and construction. Like The Social Network and The Game, it features unsympathetic characters that are nonetheless compelling. And like Se7en and Fight Club, it features some unexpected twists that may leave the viewer flabbergasted. The first act consists of a deepening mystery, while the second takes an alternative route that fleshes out the events of the first. Plot developments in the third act twist into jaw-dropping moments of audacity, but to Fincher and Flynn’s credit, the film never wavers in its commitment to the narrative events, so if the viewer sees fit to ask “Really?”, Gone Girl replies, “Yes, really!”

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As the central couple Nick and Amy Dunne, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike are believable and engaging. Like previous Fincher protagonists, they are unconventional, described by lawyer Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) as “the most fucked up people I’ve ever met”. But while it would be easy to judge Nick or Amy as “good” or “bad”, what is most striking about them and the film itself is the construction of identity. Amy has a public identity of “Amazing Amy”, a fictionalised version of her life in children’s books created by her parents. During the search for Amy, Nick adopts a public persona that other characters say is false, and certainly contrasts with the side of him seen by his sister Margo (Carrie Coon). Amy displays several different personae over the course of the film, and identities are created by the media as well. TV journalist Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) lambasts Nick without evidence for purely sensationalist reasons; Tanner helps Nick create an alternative identity when police suspicion falls on him. As the film progresses, further identities are created for public consumption, often in stark contrast to people’s private feelings. But, the film asks, are any of these identities more real than another? Nick naïvely talks about the importance of “truth”, but Gone Girl repeatedly questions the validity of truth by highlighting multiple narratives and the identities created for these narratives. It is a cliché to say that people have public and private faces, but Gone Girl takes the disturbing step of presenting all these faces as equally constructed and therefore equally valid or indeed invalid. If the public face is no less true than the private one, why not live the public face? Is our identity the one we project or the one projected onto us? Gone Girl offers no answers to these questions, but offers a compelling and thought-provoking meditation upon them.

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Unexpected Item in Reaction Area II – Prisoner to Genre

SPOILER ALERT

In my last post, I discussed Rush and that my initial attraction to the film was its director. This was not the case with Prisoners, whose director, Denis Villeneuve, I had never heard of. Prisoners caught my attention with its arresting trailer and stellar cast, but mostly because of its genre. I love a good thriller, especially one that promises kidnapped children, ambiguous suspects, good people gone bad and torture. Moral dilemmas? Unravelling families? Detectives taking it personally? Bring those over here, I can make use of them.

prisoners movie posterI didn’t get what I wanted though, as Prisoners fails to reach the sickening lows of films it seeks to emulate, especially David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) and Zodiac (2007) – the presence of Jake Gyllenhaal as a dogged detective echoes the latter especially. Prisoners is a gruelling watch but, being the sick puppy I am, I wanted to be devastated. Instead, Prisoners was compelling and gripping for the first two hours, then fell apart in the final half hour. The trailer emphasised the central conceit, that two little girls are kidnapped, the police arrest a suspect who is then released due to lack of evidence, and the fathers of the girls, Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard, kidnap the suspect, Paul Dano, and torture him. Reviews confirmed that this is the premise and that the film raised some interesting moral questions.

This did prove to be the case, as Keller Dover’s (Jackman) treatment of Alex Jones (Dano) is a descent into morally dubious territory, which Villeneuve does not flinch from showing us – shots of Alex’s battered face are genuinely horrifying. On the one hand, Prisoners clearly criticises the use of torture as Keller learns nothing from Alex. But the film does not completely condemn Keller, because any parent in his situation would be frantic and Keller clings desperately to this one hope of finding his daughter, committed to the belief that he is factually right even though what he does is morally wrong.

This thematic strand is engaging and disturbing and one that I wanted the film to explore further, but after two hours of intensity and going beyond genre conventions, the final act slides into generic territory. The last half hour shoehorns in an unconvincing psychopath in Holly Jones (Melissa Leo), some confusing red herrings as it appears Keller may have been responsible for the kidnapping (which we know he cannot have been because we have been watching him otherwise occupied) and a new dramatic development as Keller himself is imprisoned. This last twist was particularly frustrating because it provided too easy a resolution. At one point, the mystery appeared to have been solved with a tragic conclusion, as evidence pointed to another suspect. This proved to be a red herring and he was simply a former victim of the real kidnappers. What I really wanted was no resolution, the red herring the closest thing the families get to an answer, an open ending of bleakness and misery that would leave me shaken to the core. The final scene provided a hint of ambiguity, but it was too little, too late.

LokiPrisoners is not bad, indeed technically it is very good. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is sublime (as always), providing the Georgia locations with a chilly yet sumptuous beauty. The production design is excellent, the music effective and the performances are powerful – were it not for stiff competition from the likes of Tom Hanks and Chiwetel Ejiofor I might tip Jackman for a second Oscar nomination (and never say never). Furthermore, Villeneuve’s direction is very effective, handling the material steadily and drawing the viewer into the respective situations of the families and the detective. This makes the problems with Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay all the more frustrating, as so much good work is undermined by the plot developments. The final half hour probably feels more disappointing than it is “bad” because the first two hours were so gripping.

The film’s slide into generic conventions disappointed me, much like Side Effects did earlier in the year. Side Effects abandoned its compelling moral questions about medical ethics and the pharmaceutical industry in favour of lazy conspiracy conventions and dubious sexual politics. Similarly, Prisoners abandons questions over how far is too far and provides a ham-fisted conclusion with mistaken identities, murky pasts and confused religious conspiracies. But whereas I found Prisoners’ return to generic territory disappointing, the friend I saw it with found it comforting. He had a similarly contrasting reaction to Side Effects, uncomfortable with that film’s engagement with moral issues and quite relieved when the film resolved itself as a conspiracy thriller. This demonstrates the pleasure of easy resolution, whatever the moral issues are, everything can be tied up with the narrative conventions of the genre.

The contrast of our reactions is very interesting, as I see the great potential of genre as an arena for exploring big ideas. Science fiction and horror are particularly good for this (see the Thinking Film Collective), but thrillers work too, especially in terms of sociological and societal issues. Se7en and Zodiac, the most obvious influences on Prisoners, are, respectively, a parable about sin and a tale of obsession(s). At its best, Prisoners is an investigation into various forms of imprisonment – the girls, Alex and eventually Keller in physical prisons, while the Dovers and the Birches are trapped in prisons of fear and grief (I would have liked more of the Keller family especially unravelling), and Loki is imprisoned by his obsession with the case. The film’s investigation into imprisonment enriches the generic features, which work fine on their own but in a more gleeful way. Trance (Danny Boyle, 2013) is a more gleeful thriller, a neo-noir that revels in its generic tropes and is a lot of fun. Prisoners and Side Effects offer different pleasures through their engagement with moral questions, but depending on your taste, the abandonment of these questions and return to generic frameworks may be a source of relief or frustration.

Keller