Mank


★★★★

Hollywood loves watching movies about Hollywood.

Especially when it’s honoring the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Films like “The Artist,” “La La Land,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” or “Hugo,” we see Oscar voters continually giving nominations or wins to movies about movies. And, yes, it gets old sometimes.

But rarely do we see movie about Old Hollywood done with some cynicism and style as “Mank,” the new Netflix exclusive by director David Fincher. Not only is it set in the 1930s, but it looks, sounds and feels like a movie from the 1930s era. Yes, it’s filmed in black and white but the lighting reminds you of films from those days. It reminds you of a great film noir classic but it’s made in 2020.

“Mank” tells the story of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his development of the script for “Citizen Kane,” the classic film directed by Orson Welles in 1941. “Citizen Kane” is often rated as the greatest film ever made, even though it lost Best Picture at the Oscars to “How Green Was My Valley,” an incredibly boring movie I watched for the first time recently. And there’s been debate for years about who actually wrote the screenplay for “Citizen Kane”: was it Mankiewicz or Welles?

Gary Oldman, a recent Oscar winner for “The Darkest Hour,” gives maybe the best performance of his career in the lead role — and that’s saying something. Amanda Seyfried is wonderful in a small role as Marion Davies and Charles Dance (“Game of Thrones” “The Crown”) kills it as William Randolph Hearst.

It’s a movie that’s heavy on dialogue and light on actually plot but that’s OK. The language is beautifully written and it explores interesting ideas about life, legacy, politics, power and more. The conversations about socialism feel very relevant to today’s conversations.

The movie was written in the 1990s by Jack Fincher, the father of David Fincher. He meant to direct the movie after he made “The Game” in 1997 with Kevin Spacey in the lead role but it never came to fruition and his father died in 2003.

Fincher finally produced and directed his late father’s screenplay which will end up being his only work that was made into a movie. And he might have a chance to win a posthumous Oscar. It’s really well written.

Ultimately “Mank” is a love letter to all writers out there the power of the written word. It’s about how writers can change the world.

And it feels especially personal for Fincher considering his father wrote it.

Fincher has not directed a movie sine 2014’s “Gone Girl,” focusing on TV shows instead, such as “Mindhunter.” But Fincher’s record as a director is nearly flawless.

In his nearly 30-year career, he’s directed only 11 films and the only bad one is his first movie ever, “Alien 3” in 1992.

After that he has: “Seven” (1995), “The Game” (1997), “Fight Club” (1999), “Panic Room” (2002), “Zodiac” (2007), “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008), “The Social Network” (2010), “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011), “Gone Girl” (2014) and now “Mank.”

Two of his movies (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “The Social Network”) earned him Best Picture and Best Director nominations and several of his other movies are considered classics. Personally my favorite is “Zodiac.”

I fully expect Fincher to add another Best Picture and Director nomination to his resume with “Mank.”

Wander

★★

“Wander” (now available at select theaters and on VOD) made me feel like I should’ve worn a tin foil hat while watching it. It’s an Alex Jones fever dream of a movie that throws everything and the kitchen sink at its audience save for gay frogs.

Aaron Eckhart stars as Arthur Bretnick, a private detective (he has a badge stating as much – how official!) who lost his daughter in a car accident that left his wife (Nicole Steinwedell) catatonic and him disturbed. Arthur lives in a trailer out in the New Mexico desert and busies himself between cases by recording “The Thought Junction” conspiracy podcast alongside Jimmy Cleats (Tommy Lee Jones). (Jimmy Cleats is unequivocally an awesome TLJ character name!)

A woman named Elena (Deborah Chavez) calls into the show claiming that her daughter Zoe (Elizabeth Selby) was murdered just outside the fictitious town of Wander, N.M. whereas the authorities have deemed the death car accident-related. Arthur proceeds to Wander to investigate where he’s welcomed unceremoniously by Sheriff Luis Santiago (Raymond Cruz, Tuco from “Breaking Bad”). During Arthur’s investigation he uncovers a government plot touching upon immigration and insidious medical experiments. Or does he? Arthur’s psyche may be so damaged from past trauma that he’s projecting the entire cabal.

I didn’t much care for “Wander,” but the picture has its positive attributes. Eckhart is an actor that I’ve often admired – he was great in “In the Company of Men,” “Any Given Sunday,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Thank You for Smoking” and “The Dark Knight” – and he’s really good here. He plays crazy well and is the primary reason audiences should seek the film out if they’re so inclined. Jones’ character doesn’t only sport a rad moniker he also dons a series of Hawaiian shirts looking like an aged Boogaloo Boi – love the look; hate the movement. Jones isn’t playing a character so much as he is a series of sartorial choices. Speaking of costuming substituting for acting (or writing for that matter) – Katheryn Winnick (best known for the History Channel’s “Vikings”) is on hand rocking sunnies and a black cowboy hat. Gee, I wonder if her intentions are altruistic? Another blonde appearing is Heather Graham as Arthur’s friend and attorney, Shelley Luscomb. Graham’s character is given one note to play (concern for Arthur’s well-being), but she plays it well and looks lovely doing so. It’s been a minute since I’ve seen Graham in anything (probably a 2014 arc on Showtime’s “Californication”) so she was a welcome sight for sore eyes.

“Wander” is directed by April Mullen and written by Tim Doiron. I haven’t seen the partners’ previous collaborations “Dead Before Dawn 3D” (2012) or “88” (2015), but I respect what Mullen (who is Anishinaabe Algonquin) is attempting to do with her latest effort by shining a light on the displacement of indigenous peoples from stolen lands. Unfortunately, I feel this message is muted by the focus on Arthur’s instability. That said the stylistic flourishes accomplished by Mullen and her cinematographers Russ De Jong and Gavin Smith ably place viewers well within Arthur’s mania. Likewise, Doiron’s script does the same thing – I just feel as though there’s a red herring or twelve too many.

Sound of Metal

★★★★1/2

I’ve had a little experience with the deaf community. My family’s restaurant has employed four different deaf employees in the 10 years we’ve been open and so I’ve learned a little quite a bit.

One story that stuck with me comes from an employee with partial hearing. He told me that when he was younger he received a cochlear implant to improve his hearing. He told me he didn’t like it and he would come home and plop down on his bed and remove his external processor and just lay there is silence.

The sound was too much. There was too much noise.

Many people incorrectly assume that anyone who is deaf would like to wave a magic wand and have their hearing back. But many don’t see it as disability. It actually can be a gift.

In Amazon Studios new award season contender, “The Sound of Metal,” Riz Ahmed portrays a heavy metal drummer named Ruben who loses his hearing and has to adjust to a new way of life. It’s a thoughtful and nuanced performance that should earn him an Oscar nomination. If not, it will be a huge snub. Ahmed is best known for his breakthrough role in “Nightcrawler” and his Emmy-winning performance on “The Night Of,” but he’s also shown up in some commercial fare like “Jason Bourne,” “Venom” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” He gives a realistic, subtle, heart-breaking performance. He plays it with empathy and understanding.

It’s multi-layered performance. Ruben is full of anger and fear, all that can be seen on Ahmed’s face. He’s afraid of losing the one thing he loves in life, which is playing heavy metal, but he’s also afraid of continuing to lose his hearing for good. He feels accepted in his new life among the deaf community but he also doesn’t want to give up his old life and friends. He’s confused and feels lost by his new world of silence and the viewers feel it as well. On top of all of that, he’s also a recovering heroin addict who is afraid of going back to using again.

He’s trying to get the money needed for his cochlear implant to restore the life he once had but he soon realizes that there’s no going back to the way things were before.

(Side note: cochlear implants don’t provide the exact crisp audio that you and I hear and the movie beautifully portrays that with experimental sound design that puts you in his head and should win awards).

Ahmed is surrounded by solid supporting performances by Olivia Cooke (“Ready Player One,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) and Mathieu Amalric (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”).

Paul Raci, a veteran, American Sign Language interpreter and the lead singer for the Hands of Doom ASL ROCK band, steals every scene that he’s in as Ruben’s new mentor in a boarding home for deaf people. He delivers some of the weightiest lines of the movie but never makes it seem corny. There’s never a flashing neon light saying, “Here’s the moral! Here are the themes!” It’s done with subtlety.

If you were annoyed by the over-the-top hammy performances in “Hillbilly Elegy,” then you will love “The Sound of Metal.”

This is director Darius Marder’s feature length debut and he will be a name to watch for years. He creates a film about struggle, grief and acceptance that avoids the various feel-good cliches about triumphing over adversity. He makes a film that will spark a conversation after and that’s what great films do.

And while this film has bigger themes and life lesson that can be extracted, it’s ultimately a great character study. Well drawn characters that are expertly played.

Right now I would consider “The Sound of Metal” to be my favorite movie of 2020. I know that’s not saying much since this has been a strange year for movies but it truly is a remarkable movie that stays with you long after it is finished. The pacing is perfect and the acting and directing are superb. The only reason I’m not giving it five stars is personally I reserve five stars for films that are among the greatest ever made. I can’t go that far but it is among the best of the year.

The only downside is if you’re hoping for a movie about music, you will be very disappointed. The concert scenes are a very small part of the movie.

I highly recommend you don’t miss “The Sound of Metal.” You can stream it right now with an Amazon Prime subscription.