You kind of have to feel bad these days for David Fincher fanatics who genuflect at the brutal, testosterone-fueled altars of Seven and Fight Club and, to a lesser degree, Zodiac. They finally get their first new Fincher feature since 2014's Gone Girl, and it turns out that in order to even slightly enjoy the director's Mank (which premiered on Netflix this past Friday), they're required to have a pretty healthy working knowledge of Citizen Kane.
But should we feel that bad for them? A few friends I've spoken to have practically sighed with exasperation knowing that Mank is largely about the making of Orson Welles' black-and-white masterpiece from 1941 – “and now I have to watch it,” one of those pals grumbled about a movie widely considered the greatest this country has yet produced. Well, yes, anyone even mildly interested in seeing Fincher's latest probably should watch Citizen Kane first, at least if they want to get anything from the Netflix film beyond surface pleasures. (Though, in all honesty, Mank is pretty much all surface pleasures.) Yet this shouldn't be considered a chore – this should be a thrill! I know that the film's reputation as a legendary work of cinema precedes it, and doesn't do a thing for movie-goers who tend to equate “legendary work of cinema” with “boring as hell.” But has no one told these potential viewers how much freaking fun Citizen Kane is?! I'd give nearly anything to see this tale of a boy and his sled again for the first time, and one of the chief delights of Fincher's Mank lies in how cannily and consistently it reminds you of the delirious playfulness of Welles' achievement – an achievement that, in Fincher's telling, belongs as much to screenwriter Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz as it does to Welles.
This is hardly the first time an argument over Citizen Kane's actual authorship has been waged, with lengthy tomes ranging from Pauline Kael's 1971 manifesto “Raising Kane” (a preface to the shooting script that gave Mankiewicz the lion's share of credit) to Robert Carringer's 1985 book The Making of Citizen Kane (which focused on Welles' significant rewrites of Mank's finished screenplay). As its title suggests, however, Mank is firmly on Team Herman, with Fincher's screenwriter father Jack Fincher (who completed the script before his 2003 passing) scooting the film's chronology backward and forward, just like in Kane, to show how this priceless piece of writing came about via personal associations, natural wit, and a whole lotta booze.
Citizen Kane, of course, is the barely veiled, deeply unauthorized saga of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, a film that so riled its unhappy subject – a character named “Charles Foster Kane” in Mankiewicz's and Welles' telling – that it's frankly miraculous the movie got released at all. (Anyone interested in the film's rich history, and in the fascinating histories of Welles and Hearst, should seek out the brilliant 1996 documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane for as thorough a catch-up as you could want.) And as someone who actually does consider Kane the greatest movie that he's ever seen, it's easy to want more from the Finchers' Mank: more toughness, more detail regarding the writing process, more specificity into the nature of Mankiewicz's contract with Welles. But if the movie is somewhat lacking in historical insight, it more than makes up for it as sheer entertainment – though, again, it's likely entertaining only for those who know Citizen Kane, and know it well.
Then again, I wasn't terribly well-versed in Winston Churchill trivia before seeing Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, and that didn't impede my enjoyment of his Oscar-winning performance any. Playing Mank as the most endearing of besotted, sardonic, witticism-prone Hollywood stalwarts, Oldman is just as hammy and verbose here as he was playing Churchill, and just as magnetic. (With Daniel Day-Lewis in retirement, Oldman may be the one aging-Brit thespian left who makes Serious Acting look this ticklish.) Mankiewicz's alcoholism isn't treated lightly in the film, and certainly not by the other characters, but the man himself is too contentedly pickled for self-pity or -concern; even after throwing up on the floor at a fancy dinner party, he has a clever bon mot for the occasion. It's a kick having Mank around, just as it's a kick, despite his frequent hatefulness, to be in the company of Welles' Charles Foster Kane. Also as with Kane, Mank's supporting performers are equally kicky, none of them more so than Amanda Seyfried.
Even though she boasts bona-fide acting chops and has been a friendly and adorable presence dating back to 2008's Mamma Mia!, I truly never expected Seyfried to give the overall-finest performance in a movie, let alone a David Fincher movie starring Gary Oldman. Yet playing Hearst's devoted paramour Marion Davies, a delightful screen comedienne whom Hearst unsuccessfully tried to turn into a tragedienne, Seyfried is leagues better here than she's ever been before. Radiating true maturity and warmth beneath her dizzy-platinum-blond persona, Seyfried's Marion is a charming, self-assured pragmatist who has no illusions regarding what others think of her; she knows herself, and she knows Hearst, and that's plenty. Mank's finest scenes tend to be the quiet, thoughtful ones in which Marion and Mankiewicz simply relate to each other as peers and (slightly woozy) friends, and Seyfried enriches the film the same way Jessica Lange enriches Tootsie – by slowing down the chaotic rhythms in favor of something more tender, and ultimately truer. She's simply divine.
So much of Mank is, actually: Erik Messerschmidt's glorious black-and-white photography, with its echoes of Gregg Toland's iconic Kane imagery (a wonderful bit here finds Mank letting go of a liquor bottle the same way the dying Kane drops the snow globe); the period and genre wizardry of composers Trent Reznor's and Atticus Ross' lush orchestrations; the cheeky additions of “cigarette burns” at the top-right of shots signifying nonexistent reel changes. And beyond Seyfried, the ensemble is across-the-board marvelous: Charles Dance (a grimly confident Hearst), Tom Pelphrey (Mank's screenwriter brother Joe, the eventual creator of All About Eve), Arliss Howard (a roaring yet human-scaled Louis B. Mayer), Lily Collins, Tuppence Middleton, Sam Troughton. Tom Burke, meanwhile, makes occasional appearances as Welles, and his Orson-ian cadences and bearing are accurate and amusing enough that you wish Fincher would get to work on a flip-side sequel as soon as possible.
Like its title character, Mank may be a bit too blithe for its own good. A significant subplot involving the attempts to trash Upton Sinclair's gubernatorial campaign feel out of a different film entirely, and there are narrative tangents – Mankiewicz's rescue of a Jewish community in eastern Europe, the suicide of composite character Shelly Metcalf – that aren't given nearly the dramatic heft required to make their mentions meaningful. Yet Fincher's latest is a gorgeous, consistently engaging good time nevertheless – if, that is, and yet again, you've seen Citizen Kane. So get crackin'. You'll be glad you did just to see what all the fuss is about – and also what all the fuss over Mank is about.
SOUND OF METAL
Writer/director Darius Marder's Sound of Metal is one of the most frightening movies I've yet seen that isn't in any way a horror movie. In basic outline – a musician who's gradually going deaf learns to live with his disability and grow from the experience – it sounds more like a sub-par movie-of-the-week on the Hallmark Channel. Yet between the film's staggeringly immersive sound design and the riveting, wrenching performance by Riz Ahmed, I watched this low-key stunner (newly available on Prime Video) with my stomach in absolute knots. What could be scarier for a young rock drummer, after all, than to realize the only thing giving your life meaning is being irrevocably taken away from you, especially when, as a former addict, you're already looking for an excuse to start using again?
Ahmed's portrayal over this drama's two hours is like a slow-motion panic attack, but one filled with so much empathy, tenacity, and understanding that you never want to recoil from it. It was certainly wise of Marder and his exquisite sound designers to make the escalating deafness of Ahmed's Ruben Stone so intricate and visceral. The noises Ruben hears when he's at 90-percent hearing loss (noises that he would previously have called “conversation”), or after he attempts to better his condition through implants, are both vaguely recognizable and fundamentally alien; you want to un-plug your own ears to remove the disorienting throb and metallic whine. But while the effects are stupendous, they're also rather unnecessary, because Ahmed suggests all of Ruben's terrifying aural experiences through his expressions – he's like a man trying to convince himself that the nightmare he's in is literally that, and could be awoken from if he only knew how. Ruben seems forever on the verge of screaming or crying, and both responses would feel appropriate. Instead, though, he internalizes, and despite moving performances (principally by Olivia Cooke and Paul Raci) and first-rate filmmaking, what ultimately makes Sound of Metal so riveting is the war going on behind Ahmed's eyes. He and the sound design so fully pull you into the character's mental and physical states that when Ruben finally enjoys a moment of legitimate stillness and peace, the respite feels like one you've deeply earned, too.
ALL MY LIFE
“We're so cute, I want to punch us in the face.” That's Rosamund Pike, to Ben Affleck, in an early scene in Gone Girl – you know, before Pike goes all slasher-flick on poor Neil Patrick Harris. In the new cineplex drama All My Life, romantic leads Jessica Rothe and Harry Shum Jr. are so cute I want to punch them in the face. I eventually wanted to do the same to director Marc Meyers and screenwriter Todd Rosenberg, but for totally different reasons.
If you somehow stumbled into this release knowing nothing about it except that it starred that funny gal from the Happy Death Day flicks and that guy from Glee who couldn't sing but sure could dance, I guess you could be fooled, in All My Life's first third, into thinking you were in for a diverting if rather simplistic romantic comedy. Rothe, who's a terrific actor, has energy and radiant wit to spare, and Shum, though not much of an actor, exudes plenty of puppy-dog appeal, and they're quite endearing whenever their characters Jennifer and Sol are just jogging or shopping or cooking or hanging out. But there's so little conflict in their rom-com lives that any seasoned movie-goer – or really, any movie-goer over the age of eight – will instinctively know that a terminal illness has to be right around the corner, and once it arrives, all of the formerly buoyant charm, as it must, utterly evaporates. Even this, though, might not have been a deal-breaker if anything of truly dramatic import consequently occurred. But alas: A bad thing happens to two really nice people, and then all their really nice friends get together to throw them a really nice wedding, and that's about it. Like many works of its kind, All My Life opens with a title card saying that the movie is “inspired by true events,” and right before the closing credits, we get home-movie footage of the actual Jennifer and Sol – sights that are about 50 times more moving than anything else in this curiously empty experience. I don't ask much from my big-screen romances, but I do prefer that they don't make me wish I was at a downbeat documentary instead.