Mank

Posted on December 2, 2020 at 12:00 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol abuse and alcoholism
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 4, 2020

Copyright Netflix 2020
“Mank” is a big, breathtakingly ambitious, multii-layered story of Herman Mankiewicz, the man who wrote the original screenplay for what many people consider the greatest film ever made, “Citizen Kane.” This was a passion project for one of the most passionate and meticulous, film-loving directors in Hollywood, David Fincher, partly because the original script for this film was written by his late father, Jack, the sole credited screenwriter.

“Mank” is firmly rooted in its period, down to the black and white film with high ceilings and shadowy images, paying tribute to “Citizen Kane” and other films of that era, it is, like most films set in a different time, very much in conversation with and commentary on where we are today. So. the settings are re-created with exquisite precision and any old Hollywood cinephiles will be overjoyed to be able to visit the office of legendary producer Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) or sit in on a writers’ conference featuring the men who wrote films like Charles Lederer (the original “Oceans 11,” “His Girl Friday,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” played by Joseph Cross) and Ben Hecht (“Scarface,” “Gunga Din,” played by Jeff Harms. They will also get a kick out of the faux “cue marks,” the circles in the upper right-hand corners of the frame to let the theater projectionist know when it was time to get ready to change reels, long disappeared from movies in the digital era.

And then there is San Simeon, the unimaginably lavish Hearst castle built by the unimaginably wealthy William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). He was the heir to a gold mining fortune and a political dynasty. He became the owner of the country’s largest media empire, which he used to push his political priorities. Is the commentary on today coming into focus?

Herman Mankiewicz was brilliant, sardonic, cynical, and a raging alcoholic and gambler. He ruefully notes that his wife is always referred to as ‘poor Sarah” (“Downton Abbey’s” Tuppence Middleton). He was a real-life version of those journalists in the wild wild West days of newspapers, as often portrayed by Clark Gable. He famously sent a telegram to Ben Hecht (in the movie version to Charles Lederer encouraging him to come to Hollywood: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

A brilliant trouble-maker of an enfant terrible from radio and theater named Orson Welles (Tom Burke) has been given free rein to make a movie, what he would later call “the The biggest electric train set any boy ever had.” He asks Mankiewicz, recovering from a leg injury, to write the script and puts him in a remote cabin with a secretary (Lily Collins as Rita Alexander) to keep him away from “distractions,” meaning booze and gambling.

Like “Citizen Kane,” the movie goes back and forth in time, the flashbacks illuminating the movie’s present, especially the inspiration for the title character, who would be played by the 25-year-old director himself. We see moments and characters and ideas sparking the ideas in the screenplay. And we see the painful and often self-destructive force of an intellect that is so deeply cynical only because at heart he is so deeply idealistic.

Mank’s warm friendship with Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) is at the heart of the movie. He can be honest with her because she is honest with him and because, unlike “poor Sarah,” he does not feel, at least in the earlier days of their relationship, that he is letting her down. Davies was the long-time romantic partner of Hearst, who was married to someone else. He ordered his newspapers to write about her frequently, leading to the joke that every story about a Hollywood event had the line “And Marion Davies looked lovely.” (Because of the Susan Alexander character in “Citizen Kane,” the second wife Kane insisted on promoting as an opera singer with disastrous results, people often think Davies was untalented, but she was a lovely light comedienne with a charming presence on screen.)

Because of Davies, Mankiewicz is often a guest at San Simeon and has a cordial relationship with Hearst, until Hearst’s opposition to the progressive California gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair (cannily played by Science Guy Bill Nye) and the movie studios’ anti-Sinclair propaganda “news” films lead to intolerable behavior in social gatherings — and to the corrupt, lonely former idealist Charles Foster Kane.

It is pure pleasure to see a film that respects the audience enough to take on big issues with complexity, humanity, and wit, every careful detail and layered performance providing much to think about and many questions about our own time and how it will be seen eighty years from now, if we are lucky enough to have filmmakers of this quality.

Parents should know that this movie includes strong language, alcoholism and other addictive behavior, some sexual references, and references to the Holocaust.

Family discussion: Who is most like William Randolph Hearst today? Most like Upton Sinclair? Why did Mank change his mind about wanting credit for the movie? Was he fair to Marion Davies?

If you like this, try: “Citizen Kane” and the book about the film by Pauline Kael, Mank: The wit, world, and life of Herman Mankiewicz, and other films by and about the Mankiewicz brothers and Welles. And see some of Marion Davies’ films like “Peg o’ My Heart” and “Show People.”

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The Social Network

Posted on January 10, 2011 at 8:00 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug and alcohol use and language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations and charges of betrayal
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 1, 2010
Date Released to DVD: January 11, 2011
Amazon.com ASIN: B0034G4P7G

Change is not polite. The bigger the change, the more likely that it is messy and painful and ugly. Even its beginnings are often disturbingly uninspired and uninspiring. Despite what Hollywood and history books tell us, change is less often sparked by a passion for justice or a vision of a better world. More often, even the most beneficial change is inspired by ambition, competition, revenge, spite, wanting to seem cool, or the most frequently compelling reason of all — some romantic companionship or a reasonable approximation thereof or at least to appear cool in front of whichever gender you are hoping to attract.
And it is change that is the subject of this movie. Don’t call it “The Facebook Movie.” It’s about a small group of college students who almost accidentally create a product that almost accidentally becomes a phenomenon. As screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has said repeatedly in interviews, it could just as well have been the invention of a toaster that he was writing about. Sorkin, whose past work includes “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “The West Wing,” and a Broadway play about the invention of television, uses the origin of Facebook as a way to engage with classic themes of loyalty, innovation, greed, class, and the challenges of relationships of all kinds.
In a meta-touch, the movie’s shifting points of view effectively crowd-source the storyline and its own willingness to bend the facts acknowledges that there is no one way to tell the story. However, even with the inevitable scenes of pale dudes staring intently into computer screens while they furiously bang away at the keyboards, the story is grounded in the same emotions depicted in ancient Greek drama — ambition, rebellion, anger, betrayal. It depicts the contrast between the arrogant brash and very young upstart who starts a spite project because he can’t be accepted by girls or clubs and the arrogant smug club members who assume that all they need to do is cite the school handbook to the university president (probably once brash, now smug, perpetually arrogant). Is there an underdog in all of this that we’re supposed to root for?
No one is better at writing dialogue for smart people than Sorkin. In the opening scene Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg of “Zombieland” and “The Squid and the Whale”) and his girlfriend are on a date. They have a blisteringly fast exchange about status that shows he has some issues when it comes to navigating contact with other humans. She dumps him. Frustrated, bitter, and a little drunk, he goes back to his dorm room and impulsively does two small things that will have seismic consequences. In olden days, someone in that situation might go back to the dorm and trash the now-ex to his friends. But this was 2002, so instead he wrote something nasty about her on his blog. And then he decided to create a mean “hot or not” website by posting student directory photos online. This gets him into trouble with the school. And it brings him to the attention of three upperclassmen, in both senses of the word. They have the dazzlingly casual arrogance of members of the most exclusive of the final clubs. Two of them are gigantic twins who are on the Olympic crew team and look like they walked out of a J.C. Leyendecker ad for Arrow shirts.
They ask Zuckerberg to do the programming for a website that will post and connect all of the students at the school. He brings on his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield of “Never Let Me Go” and the upcoming Spider-Man reboot), as chief financial officer — meaning that he provides the initial $1000 in start-up money.
A few months later, “thefacebook.com” is up and running and growing exponentially. Zuckerberg combined the appeal of a blog (students can express their feelings or describe their activities) and the connectivity of a computer network. When a classmate awkwardly asks Zuckerberg whether a girl in their class is dating anyone, Zuckerberg adds a function to the site that lets participants state their availability and interest.
There is change that comes because people want something. And then there is the more profound change that comes about because of something people didn’t even know they wanted. Facebook did not exist ten years ago. Today it has more than 500 million members around the world.
Zuckerberg meets Napster co-founder Sean Parker (a seductive Justin Timberlake), who entices him with a combination of glamour and venture capital. He plays the role in this movie that Lampwick does in “Pinnochio;” taking him to the fun place that turns little boys into donkeys. But he is right about some important decisions, including dropping the “the” and raising money from backers rather than advertisers. And it turns out there are two ways to become a cool guy; you can be accepted by the guys who are cool or you can be the one to redefine what cool is.
But who created Facebook? Zuckerberg is sued by the upperclassmen, who never participated after proposing the initial idea and by Saverin, who is pushed out after Parker comes on board. The movie allows us to make up our own mind. And then it ends with a reminder that even an enormous innovation in making human connections cannot substitute for the real thing.
The performances are all top-notch. Eisenberg is superb, playing not the real Mark Zuckerberg but the character created by Sorkin, hyper-alert and obtuse, his voice both taut and tremulous. Armie Hammer is outstanding as both of the towering twin brothers and Rooney Mara (soon to play Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) makes a strong impression in her brief appearance as the girl who starts the whole thing by dumping Zuckerberg. Sorkin perfectly captures the cadences of the Harvard community, including a gem of a cameo by Douglas Urbanski as Harvard president Larry Summers. Director David Fincher minimizes the scenes of people staring intently at computer screens while madly banging away on a keyboard to keep this movie about the power, the lure, the fragility, and the importance of the social network of the analog world. It might inspire the next Facebook, but it is more likely to inspire people to log off.

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