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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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Steve Jobs

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Ego. All-encompassing, unadulterated, unstoppable ego. Such is the driving force behind the titular Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) in Danny Boyle’s electrifying dramatization of the late Apple CEO’s life. I say dramatization because to call Steve Jobs a biopic would be a mischaracterisation. While it features Jobs and various other “real” people, including Jobs’ closest friend and marketing coordinator Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), former design partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and father figure John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Steve Jobs does not depict the man from adoption to death, nor even portray many events from his life. Instead, Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin depict the moments before three product launches, from 1984, 1988 and 1998 respectively. Never does the viewer see the launches themselves – the narrative is the backstage drama as various people come to speak to Jobs about design, marketing, technical difficulties, family, money, all of which Jobs subsumes within his overpowering ego. In this way, Steve Jobs echoes Sorkin’s previous screenplay about an IT entrepreneur, The Social Network. Like Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) in the earlier film, Jobs is frequently unsympathetic but never less than compelling. Also like The Social Network, Steve Jobs cuts abruptly between time periods – sudden flashbacks interrupt the flow of scenes and conversations, giving us glimpses of how Jobs set up his products, plans and people. Boyle is on typically vibrant form, with a discordant editing rhythm that sometimes jars simple narrative flow, while surreal distortions of the mise-en-scene project Jobs’ words and thoughts onto walls and floors. Yet throughout all this, Jobs remains beguilingly inscrutable, as contradictory as the development of the products that he controversially takes credit for. Steve Jobs is unlikely to give the viewer information that could not be learnt (appropriately enough) from the Internet, but it is an enthralling and dynamic portrayal of a vigorous and fascinating ego.

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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Oscars – who are we to say they’re wrong?

Every year the Oscar nominations are announced, and every year everybody and their dog proclaims that the Academy got it wrong and that everybody else (and their dog) knows far better. Whether it be critics or audiences, the Internet is never short of comments offering alternative versions of what “should” be nominated. This year has been no exception – as an example, while there is little protest over the nominations of The Artist and Hugo, many lament that Drive has been left out of, not only the Best Picture category, but every category except for a “paltry” nod for Sound Editing. On a related note, after his three major performances in three very different films last year, it seems rather mean that Ryan Gosling has been ignored in the Best Actor category. I’ve never heard of Demian Bichir, nor the film for which he is nominated, A Better Life, so it’s a good thing he is nominated as it will help publicise the film.

Critics are quick to insist that they know better – and it is after all their job to be critical. This year, the Academy has been soundly berated for not nominating Senna for Best Documentary. Critics have their own set of awards – National Board of Review, Critics Societies and Associations of various cities, National Society of Film Critics – and the BBC critic Mark Kermode presents his own awards each year, named the Kermodes. The only rule for winning a Kermode is that the nominee must not also have been nominated for an Oscar. While this practice is entertaining, the fact that alternative awards exist demonstrates that critics have their own position, maybe their own standards, and run their own awards, so why not be different from the Academy? If all awards went to the same films, that would mean everyone thought the same way, and we all appreciate variety and range of opinion, don’t we?

Similarly, we the public have a great range of different opinions, and all can be respected. I mentioned to a friend that The Tree of Life was up for Best Picture and Best Director because I knew he liked it. He asked about Melancholia with an expectant air, and on being told it had not been nominated commented that he hates the Oscars. Is this because they have a different position, and they should agree with him? Is “greatness” not a concept that is hard to identify and even harder to make universally accepted?

Complaining about what “should” be nominated is, to me, pointless and rather arrogant. Who are we to tell the Academy members how to do their job? Does the fact that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences consists of people who make films count for nothing? As the public, we vote in our ticket buying habits, and with people’s choice awards. When the public disagree with the Oscar winners, the question that always strikes me is “Why do you know better? What standards are you following, which are clearly different and seemingly superior to those of the Academy members?” We don’t know what goes through the heads of the Academy members any more than we know what goes through the heads of the other people at the supermarket or on the bus, and yet we are not shy to declare that we know better. Yet how we know better is a question few seem willing or even able to answer.

Why, indeed, would we, the viewing public, know what constitutes the “best” films? Or, for that matter, the best directing, writing, acting, editing, cinematography, sound mixing, sound editing, visual effects, art direction, costume design, music, make-up? I have a PhD in Film Studies, and am often asked “What’s a really good film?” or “What’s the best film ever?” I have absolutely no idea, and neither does anyone else. The Academy members are, in that respect, like the rest of us, choosing and voting for what they happen to admire. Some of us like to post our own favourites each year, my previous post being just that. I don’t think my top ten are necessarily the best, they are simply what I enjoyed. Yes, the Academy Awards are more significant than some random blogger’s top ten, but it seems unlikely that they are actually judged by any standard that is higher than that. Therefore, can we not view the Oscars as an expression of admiration among film industry workers for their peers?

This is not to say that I necessarily agree with the Academy’s decisions. For my money, Avatar is a more impressive piece of cinema than The Hurt Locker, because it genuinely stretches the boundaries of what cinema can do. The 2008 nominees (Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, The Reader, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon) were a rather bland collection, I thought, and both The Dark Knight and The Wrestler were far more powerful and compelling pieces of work. Last year, I found The Social Network to be an edgier and more critical and relevant piece than The King’s Speech, which was perfectly put together but rather too pat, too respectable, too safe. I found something else to be more impressive than what won or was nominated, but that doesn’t mean that my opinion is superior to those of the Academy members.

What is a more interesting question is why certain films get nominated and awarded over others. As a cultural institution, the Academy Awards are a fascinating expression of certain standards of taste. The very fact that The King’s Speech is about good behaviour, doing your duty and triumphing over adversity suggests that it made a more “respectable” choice than the ultimately inconsequential tale of highly intelligent but thoroughly unpleasant people squabbling over copyright laws in The Social Network. The Hurt Locker‘s depiction yet lack of commentary on the Iraq War made it a more “important” and “worthy” although non-controversial film than the science fiction spectacle of Avatar, even though Avatar is far more explicitly political. In the case of Melancholia, its being ignored probably has as much to do with Lars Von Trier’s controversial statements at the Cannes Film Festival as the high or low quality of the film. Political and personal taste will always have a bearing; rather than getting on our judgemental high horses it seems far more interesting to consider the reasoning behind decisions rather than just condemning them as incorrect.

As an initial consideration of reasoning, a glance over this year’s nominees suggests a strong element of nostalgia, with The Artist and Hugo, both acutely concerned with the history of cinema, leading the pack. The Academy members are clearly appreciative of this nostalgia, and seek to reward it. Why shouldn’t they? Both films are likely to win big, with The Artist gathering momentum having picked up Golden Globes, PGA and DGA. Acting awards are likely to be among The Artist, The Descendants and The Help, with technical awards scattered among the Best Picture nominees. I will post a more in-depth set of predictions nearer the time, but what I won’t do is say what should win. The Academy members are allowed their opinions just like everyone else, and are no more right or wrong than anyone else.