Movie review: Mank (as in Herman)

Herman Mankiewicz

MankThe first movie I saw in an actual cinema was Mank. I viewed it at Landmark’s Spectrum 8 in Albany the Thursday before the Oscars. Only some of the seats were available, for COVID reasons. I’ve been vaccinated so I was feeling reasonably comfortable.

I had been looking forward to seeing this film since Ben Mankiewicz, a host on Turner Classic Movies, talked about it several months earlier on CBS Sunday Morning.

Ben’s interest was not just cinematic, though. He is a grandson of the topic of the film, Herman Mankiewicz, a noted writer for newspapers and magazines, who famously may have co-written as many as 40 films.

The movie is about “1930’s Hollywood is reevaluated through the eyes of scathing social critic and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he races to finish the screenplay of Citizen Kane (1941),” the only movie for which he was, with Welles, actually credited with writing.

Didn’t love it

This was a story I knew something about. Mank’s peculiar platonic relationship with actress Marion Davies (a very good Amanda Seyfried), who was the paramour of William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Mank’s long-suffering wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton) explains why she stays with her husband: “It’s never boring.”

But despite the cool black and white details, I found the narrative frustratingly jumbled. The review in Jacobin magazine addresses much of it. “The ‘Mank’ story hardly needs embellishment, but the Finchers, father, and son, give it plenty anyway. There are about fifty published posts out there that explain which parts of Mank are factual and which are made up.”

“The dinner party scene is a garbled mess, though [director David] Fincher seems to have lavished elaborate care upon it.” It’s set up as Important but it felt oddly flat.

“The way it’s filmed is so blandly unmemorable, it would’ve done much to undercut it. The film’s lax flashback structure from Mankiewicz’s point-of-view seems to be in contrast to Citizen Kane’s dynamic flashback structure from multiple, contradictory points of view.” While the chronology was noted throughout, the need for jumping back and forth in time was lost on me.

Or maybe I just missed it

Think Christian suggests that in the “Oscar-nominated film, Gary Oldman plays a truth-teller in a gadfly’s clothing.” So “Mank repeatedly lampoons the latent hypocrisy and brutal inhumanity of Hollywood’s dream machine. In doing so, this self-described ‘washed-up’ screenwriter impishly reminds viewers that, flaws and all, great prophets (and artists) courageously speak truth to power.”

For instance, “Mank witnesses Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) earnestly plead with his MGM employees to accept a fifty-percent pay cut so the studio may survive the Great Depression intact… Knowing Mayer’s self-serving nature and deep pockets, Mank sardonically observes, ‘Not even the most disgraceful thing I have ever seen.’” But he doesn’t say this to Mayer, so…

Still, “whereas Mayer feigns caring but lives indifference, Mank takes the opposite path.” Mank’s transcriber Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) works with him on the Kane script as he recovers from a car accident.

“When asked [by Rita] to defend her loyalty to her alcoholic and antisocial patient, Mank’s German caregiver, Fraulein Freda (Monika Gossmann), reveals that he secretly donated the funds necessary to save 100 Jewish residents in her village from Nazis. Confronted with his altruism, Mank replies, ‘Dear Freda. What’s German for blabbermouth?’

Perhaps all of the goodness of the movie is there somewhere. The critics gave it an 83% positive review, though only 60% of the general audience agreed. Or maybe I wanted to like my first cinematic experience in 14 months too much. Having finally seen all of the nominated films for Best Picture this season, Mank might be my least favorite; ah, well.

The less-than-satisfactory Oscar post

I saw all the Best Supporting Actor and Original Screenplay noms!

EmmaYeah, it’s been a less-than-satisfactory Oscar viewing season for me. I haven’t seen many of the nominees, certainly in comparison with most years. Although, seeing THREE Best Picture nominees in the last three days, which I haven’t yet reviewed, has made the list a bit more complete.

So this is a post for this moment, and I’m hoping to see the others eventually. The ! means I saw it. I’ll link to my reviews the first time.

BEST PICTURE
! The Father – I just saw this; well-acted, of course, depressing and a little stagey
! Judas and the Black Messiah – I saw this yesterday; the best in my opinion.
Mank – this played at the newly-reopened Spectrum Theatre, but I didn’t catch it.
! Minari 
! Nomadland. I’m aware of the controversy over how the movie doesn’t fully address the working conditions at Amazon, which the book apparently does.
! Promising Young Woman – I just saw, and I liked it a lot
! Sound of Metal – this is the movie I saw the earliest of the nominees, the only one before the noms were announced. It’s very good.
! The Trial of the Chicago Seven. Good film.

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
! Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm 
Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy – she’s overdue, but this movie reviewed terribly
! Olivia Colman, The Father. She’s very strong in a demanding role.
Amanda Seyfried, Mank
! Youn Yuh-Jung, Minari – my favorite

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE – all great performances
But it is absurd that the two leads of Judas are both up for best supporting. I blame the studio.
! Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7
! Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
! Leslie Odom Jr., One Night in Miami
! Paul Raci, Sound of Metal – probably my #2 pick
! Lakeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah, narrowly my #1 pick

INTERNATIONAL FEATURE FILM
Another Round – Denmark. A good film but this is the only one I saw in the category.
Better Days – Hong Kong
Collective – Romania
The Man Who Sold His Skin – Tunisia
Qu Vadis, Aida? – Bosnia and Herzegovina

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Collective
Crip Camp
The Mole Agent
My Octopus Teacher
! Time 

ORIGINAL SONG
! Fight For You from Judas and the Black Messiah
! Hear My Voice from The Trial of the Chicago 7
Husavik from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
lo Sì (Seen) from The Life Ahead (La Vita Davanti a Se)
! Speak Now from One Night in Miami – my rooting interest

Screenplays and other things

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Onward
Over the Moon
A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon
Soul
! Wolfwalkers 

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
! Borat Subsequent MovieFilm
! The Father
! Nomadland
! One Night in Miami – my favorite of the four
The White Tiger – there’s a 2021 movie called White Tiger about a tank. That isn’t this movie.

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
! Judas and the Black Messiah – my #1 pick
! Minari
! Promising Young Woman – my #2 pick
! Sound of Metal
! The Trial of the Chicago 7

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
! Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal – excellent
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – like a lot of others, I’d be thrilled if he wins posthumously
! Anthony Hopkins, The Father – great, as usual
Gary Oldman, Mank
! Steven Yeun, Minari

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – I always root for her
! Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holiday – she is WAY better than the movie; review soon
Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman
! Frances McDormand, Nomadland
! Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman – possibly my favorite

DIRECTOR
! Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round
David Fincher, Mank
! Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
! Chloe Zhao, Nomadland
! Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman. My pick.

The techie awards

PRODUCTION DESIGN
! The Father
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Mank
News of the World
Tenet

CINEMATOGRAPHY
! Sean Bobbitt, Judas and the Black Messiah
Erik Messerschmidt, Mank
Dariusz Wolski, News of the World
! Joshua James Richards, Nomadland – I can imagine this winning
! Phedon Papamichael, The Trial of the Chicago 7

COSTUME DESIGN
! Emma – hmm. I bought this DVD for my wife and we watched it some months ago, but I never reviewed it. It was pleasant enough, not great. But the costumes WERE fabulous.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Mank
Mulan
Pinocchio

ACHIEVEMENT IN SOUND
Greyhound
Mank
News of the World
Soul
! Sound of Metal – the sound, and lack of, is pivotal here, and very effective

ORIGINAL SCORE
Da 5 Bloods
Mank
! Minari
News of the World
Soul

VISUAL EFFECTS – I’ve seen none
Love and Monsters
The Midnight Sky
Mulan
The One and Only Ivan
Tenet

FILM EDITING
! The Father
! Nomadland – will probably win
! Promising Young Woman
! Sound of Metal – rooting interest
! The Trial of the Chicago 7 – secondary rooting interest

MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
! Emma
Hillbilly Elegy
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Mank
Pinocchio