Tilting At Windmills

Mank

by George Wolf

Since its release in 1941, Citizen Kane has earned such a prodigious place in film and popular culture that the utterance of merely one word can summon it.

And as much as Orson Welles’s masterwork has been dissected over the years, Mank reveals its essence in unique and wondrous ways.

Director/co-writer David Fincher (who honors his late father Jack’s script by listing him as the sole writer) takes us into Citizen Kane through the shadowy side entrance of screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz. Officially, Mank and Welles shared the Kane writing credit, though just who did the heavy lifting is still a source of debate for film historians.

Fincher’s view is clear. But even the dissenters may feel powerless to the seductive pull of Mank‘s immersion into Kane‘s creation, and to the stupendous lead performance that drives it.

As Mankiewicz (“and then out of nowhere, a ‘Z’!”), Gary Oldman is out-of-this world-good. His Mank is a charmer, a gambler and a frequent drunk, bedridden by injuries from a car accident and under the gun to deliver Welles a script in just 90…no make that 60 days. And no drinking!

Tick. Tock.

The first few pages bring a critique that “none of it sings,” which is funny, because all of this sings.

Fincher’s rapid-fire dialogue is beautifully layered and lyrically precise, more like the final draft of a script than authentic conversations, which only reinforces the film’s commitment to honoring the power of writing. Onscreen typeface and script direction transition the flashbacks to Mank’s years in the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s, running in social circles with power brokers such as Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), Kane inspiration William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), and Hearst’s not-so-dumb blonde mistress Marion Davies (a terrific Amanda Seyfried).

Oldman expertly sells Mank’s truth-to-power rebellion as a sly reaction to his own feelings of powerlessness. His charm as a “court jester” belies a growing angst about America’s power structure that Welles (Tom Burke) is eager to illustrate.

And though much of Mank‘s power is verbal (just try to catch a breath during Oldman’s drunken Don Quixote speech), Fincher crafts a luscious visual landscape. Buoyed by Erik Messerschmidt’s gorgeous B&W cinematography, Fincher recreates the era with sharp period detail and tips his hat to Welles with Kane-esque uses of shadow, forced perspective and one falling glass of booze.

Talk of “getting people back to the theaters” and manufactured news will feel especially relevant, but Mank provides a nearly endless peeling of satisfying layers. So much more than a story about how a classic story was told, it’s a sweeping ode to the power of courageous art, no matter how flawed the artist.

Real, Real Gone

Gone Girl

by Hope Madden

David Fincher makes a lot of good films, but in his best films, he seems to be having wicked fun. Such is the case with Gone Girl.

Don’t let the trailers fool you. This is not a dour whodunit tragedy. It’s a brightly crafted melodrama that embraces its pulpy center as lovingly as its razor sharp edges. Infused with acerbic wit and delivered with stellar performances, Gone Girl is an absorbing twist-and-turn-athon and a ton of fun.

Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, suspect #1 in the disappearance of his beautiful wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), and he’s never been better. That’s not such a strong statement, because in general his performances are blandly likeable, but here he’s able to channel his inner douchiness and it works wonders. He’s the exact mix of endearing everyman and disappointing schmuck the film needs to work.

But Pike is the reason to watch this movie. It’s easy to see why every heavy hitter in Hollywood – including the film’s producer Reese Witherspoon – banged on Fincher’s door in search of this role. Amy Dunne is a hell of a character and Rosamund Pike gives a hell of a performance – fluid enough to meet the high, constantly changing demands.

Fincher’s casting throughout is slyly wonderful, with unexpected faces in exactly the right roles. Tyler Perry is a hoot as Nick’s high-powered ambulance chaser and Neil Patrick Harris is just as unconventionally cast and just as enjoyably spot-on.

Fincher takes aim at current American culture – tragedy groupies, local law enforcement, the media and Nancy Grace-style “news” programs, in particular – and scores bull’s eyes every time. It gives the film an air of self-satisfaction, sure, but the barbs are so very precise and relevant that any smugness can be forgiven.

Fincher’s craft is on full display here, dreamily weaving multiple points of view and saturating the mystery with wit and tension. What feels stilted and flat in early scenes evolves into a series of “aha!” moments for viewers.

Gone Girl is not a heavy, thoughtful awards season drama. At its heart, it’s paperback trash, and in Fincher’s exceedingly capable hands, that’s all it needs to be to amount to a memorable, satisfying, constantly surprising movie.

Verdict-4-0-Stars