As 2020 staggers to a merciful end, we see out this dumpster fire of a year with a look at (what else) a bunch of films. Do Black Bear, Possessor, Mank, Unhinged, Tenet, and Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project enhance the 2020 experience, or somehow, unbelievably, make it worse? Tune in and find out!
Allison (played by Aubrey Plaza, in a very Aubrey Plaza way, at first, though with more immediate menace, rather than mischief, as would be expected of April Ludgate) is an independent filmmaker and former actress (she stopped getting acting work because she was too difficult), who arrives at a large house in the forest in upstate New York, ostensibly to write her new film. There she meets her hosts, passive-aggressive couple Blair and Gabe (Sarah Gadon and Christopher Abbott). Gabe flirts with Allison, Blair and she trade hollow, insincere compliments. Both question her about the whereabouts of her husband, but Allison tells them she’s not married.
As Allison’s time with the couple passes, sexual tension begins to build between Allison and Gabe, and more regular tension between Gabe and Blair. The two aren’t suited for each other, and are clearly continuing their relationship due to Blair’s pregnancy. Things come to a head on an evening fuelled by cannabis and wine, with Allison delighting in pulling levers and pushing buttons, prompting arguments between Gabe and Blair, including on the subject of traditional gender roles and how their breakdown has destabilised society, as well as unfulfilled creative lives and artistic dissatisfaction.
The evening ends almost exactly as you would expect, and with apparent tragedy, and then…
Bang! Reset! We’re at the house in the woods again, and Allison is again in her red swimsuit on the pontoon at the edge of the lake below the house, as we saw her earlier. But now it’s the final day of a film shoot, Gabe is the director, married to Allison, and colluding with Blair to torment Allison and make her believe they’re having an affair, in order to draw out a more realistic performance. The house is full of crew (including the world’s worst script supervisor), with numerous minor dramas going on while someone must find a spectacularly drunk Allison and get her ready for the climactic scene.
Which is real? Is any of it? The final shot of the film seems to answer, and also very nearly ruins the whole film for me, though not specifically for that reason, so well-played, Mr Levine. Fortunately, it didn’t, but it was a close thing.
Black Bear is very meta, and with levels of meta. Everyone is lying, even the film is lying, but isn’t that what a film is? A crafted lie? Everything is a performance of some kind or other, including our own relationships. All of the conversations and interactions, the jokes, the compliments: perhaps to deceive, perhaps to flatter, perhaps simply to stop us thinking about the void that lies beneath and within (there is a very dark undercurrent to Black Bear).
Done wrong, this could be absolutely insufferable, but I really, really enjoyed it. Crucial to that is the central, exceptional, performance from Aubrey Plaza, in a role specifically written for her, and even that is meta, as it plays with Plaza’s perception as an actress, particularly her stereotyping as Parks and Recreation’s April (a character who, of course, was also lying: the aloof, sarcastic, ironic millennial who cared far more than she was willing to let on).
The structure of the film is flawed, unfinished, as if writer/director Lawrence Michael Devine couldn’t quite get everything to join up (perhaps it just needs a third iteration of the characters?), but there are some genuinely wonderful scenes, playing like modern takes on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with the poison seeping out of toxic relationships into the air. The dialogue crackles, and is delivered so well by the three principles that you can begin to feel embarrassed and uncomfortable, and want to excuse yourself from their company (had I seen Possessor before I saw this, I would have been shocked that Christopher Abbott could produce such a performance, though instead it was the lifeless performance in that that surprised me). A strong recommendation from me, though definitely not a film for everyone.
Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, has released only his second full length feature film, Possessor, starring Andrea Riseborough as Tasya Vos, an agent for a firm specialising in corporate assassinations. The method of these assassinations involves Vos inserting her own consciousness into the mind of a subject near the target, and using their body to commit the act. One quick mental exit by suicide later and the perfect crime has been committed, only the process takes it’s toll on the agents involved, and Vos’ boss Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is concerned that her star operative is losing both her mind and her edge on account of her attachment to her ex husband and son.
The firm’s next big job is on the cards, and will set them up financially for quite some time, but once inside her unwitting vessel, a former drug dealer working a low level job inside his finacee’s father’s corporation, Vos’ mind begins to fall out of synch with her host and a battle for control ensues which could ruin the whole operation.
It seems by turns easy and disingenuous to suggest that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree in terms of the Cronenberg name, but while Brandon clearly exhibits some of the body horror sensibilities upon which his father built his reputation the psychedelic style here is very much his own. I found Possessor much more immediately accessible than his father’s early works, and despite (or maybe because of) the oppressive overtones and generally dark subject matter I enjoyed it a great deal.
Having completely forgotten her role in The Death of Stalin I was recalling Riseborough only by her performance in Oblivion, which is about as removed from Possessor in terms of sci-fi as you can probably get. I’m going to go ahead and say that I’d presume those of you who have seen Mandy will find her performance here less of a surprise than I did. Though we never get to know Tanya Vos perhaps as deeply as would be entirely satisfying, Riseborough’s performance is nonetheless excellent, her personality a half octave away from those around her as her grip on sanity begins to slip. It’s a bold performance in a number of ways, some of which stick out more than others, and it makes me wonder that Riseborough’s profile is nowhere near where it ought to be having once been pigeon holed as the Next Big Thing, before sliding again into something more than obscurity but less than stardom.
Ultimately though it’s Cronenberg’s film, and if this is his jam then you can count me in for whatever he does next. There are moments of genuinely shocking violence which may be challenging for some viewers, though they seem justifiable enough within the context of the narrative, but it’s the director’s understanding of tone and willingness to experiment visually that make Cronenberg one to watch. The pervasive sense of unease he has evoked here is right in my wheelhouse, coupled with visual techniques that evoke the best elements of horror works as diverse as Argento and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.
I have a feeling that mileage will vary more than usual on this one, and if someone were to level the argument that Possessor is more surface than substance I don’t know that I could counter all that effectively. It certainly appeals to me however, and despite a conclusion that feels like it deserved the rest of the movie to have been a little more evenly baked I really enjoyed Possessor.
Mank is, surprisingly, David Fincher’s first film since 2014’s Gone Girl, so, being a big fan of the director (please check out our episode on Fincher from February 2017 for more), I was massively excited by the prospect of Mank, something compounded by its subject, the writer, and writing, of Citizen Kane, a film that was, in fact, the very first that we ever spoke about here on Fuds on Film, and which Scott and I testified then to being huge lovers of.
Gary Oldman plays Herman J. Mankiewicz (the titular Mank, though sadly in the UK that name’s a bit too close for comfort to the “dirty and unpleasant” manky), a washed-up screenwriter employed by RKO Pictures to write the first draft of a screenplay for Orson Welles’ new film, then titled American.
The story of the writing of Citizen Kane has been studied, and argued over, for decades, so to say this is any sort of definitive portrayal of the events would be… foolish. It’s pure Hollywood, so, as the French would say, “c’est des conneries”. Mankiewicz seemed to have been as unreliable a narrator in real life as he is in this film, perhaps thanks to his alcoholism (the 62-year-old Oldman playing the 43-year-old Mankiewicz works: he’s really got some city miles on him), so we can’t take too much on faith, as a bedridden Mank guides us through flashbacks to meetings with Louis B. Mayer, William Randolph Hearst, Hearst’s paramour, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried, in what is probably the film’s standout performance) and “Boy Wonder” Irving Thalberg, often against the backdrop of the 1934 California gubernatorial election, in which Mayer and Hearst worked together to torpedo the campaign of Upton Sinclair, much to Mankiewicz’s distate. These serve to attempt to explain their analogues in Citizen Kane, and the reason for their inclusion.
Conspicuous by his absence for most of the film is Welles (Tom Burke), who appears only fleetingly, more to give Mank a kick up the bum than anything else. He is heard more than seen, actually, and Burke deserves lots of credit for how uncannily accurate his Welles’ voice is (there’s actually a whole mess of accents going on here, several bad, with special anti-plaudits going to Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst and Lily Collins as Manky’s English secretary, Rita Alexander).
A quote attributed to Welles himself, almost certainly fallaciously so, but appropriate here, comes to mind, to wit, “now we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognise the quotations”. A lot of Mank makes me feel similarly, though it’s “portrayal of Golden Age Hollywood” and “famous names”, with so many people of that era cameoing, either in character or name alone, that it feels like film fan bingo: David O. Selznick! Joe Mankiewicz! Josef von Sternberg! Great Garbo! John Houseman! House! Even when it’s portraying it in a negative light, there’s still nothing Hollywood likes more than Hollywood.
The biggest problem I have with Mank is that Herman Mankiewicz, at least as portrayed in Mank, isn’t very interesting, and if I’m going to watch a film about the making of Citizen Kane, I’d far, far rather it be about Orson Welles, who is incredibly interesting. John Houseman said of Mankiewicz, “he was … one of the most intelligent, informed, witty, humane and charming men I have ever known”, and there are only ever glimpses of that. At least for the first half of the film, Mank is barely even a character, serving more as a guide through a few important points (I originally mistyped this as “pints”, though that seems fitting given the writer’s principle interest) in the history of Hollywood and of California politics. I have no issue with Gary Oldman’s performance, but he’s not really given a great deal to work with, and more than anything that’s frustrating.
Talking of performance, very dodgy accent aside, I also have no problem with Charles Dance as Hearst. What I do have a problem with is that Hearst, given that he’s the protagonist of the exceedingly famous roman à clef that is Citizen Kane, needs to be painted as the villain, and he really isn’t. This may seem odd, given that when Fincher and Dance worked together on Alien 3, Dance was sort of a good guy, but I feel that the director is relying on a sense of villainy coming simply from the casting of Charles Dance. And Charles Dance does play a stonking villain, don’t get me wrong, just not here, where the true villain, and principal target of Mankiewicz’s antipathy, is clearly Louis B. Mayer. It all feels a bit misdirected.
Mank is well-made, it looks good, there are no “bad” points about Mank, per se (though I don’t love the screenplay-style, typewritten “location” text, mostly due to inconsistency, nor the boomy 1930s movie sound, which plays to me as artifice, not authenticity, though to be fair I stopped noticing it after a short while); it’s just that it’s not that interesting. It’s fine, nothing more, and certainly isn’t troubling the top of the list of David Fincher’s work for me. Still worth seeing, though.
It’s all over the front page, Russell Crowe gets road rage in this B-movie thriller. Casting from real life, there.
He plays Tom Cooper, introducing himself to us by brutally killing his ex-wife and her new man. As the police hunt him, he’s cut up on the freeway by Caren Pistorius’ Rachel, rushing to get her kid to school while having a nightmare of a morning.
That turns into a nightmare of a day, as the unhinged boom title drop Cooper decides to teach Rachel a lesson, by going after and killing everyone Rachel loves, in a variety of nasty fashions, not purely vehicular.
It’s a silly B-movie concept, and delivers silly B-movie results. It’s predicated almost entirely on Crowe’s performance, which is every bit as chonky as the fat suit he inhabits for no reason whatsoever, and while as a gentleman of extraordinary stature myself I feel this is unwarranted cultural appropriation, it is enough to make a film that doesn’t have all that much going for it otherwise watchable.
A brainless bit of exploitation, so if you’re in the mood for that give it a bash, but it’s not essential viewing by any stretch.
It’s unlikely that Tenet, the latest from director Christopher Nolan, will have crept onto your radar undetected, and about equally as unlikely that you will need me to fill you in on the controversy surrounding it’s self-evangelising status as the supposed “Saviour of Cinema.” I’ll leave my opinions on this for the conclusion of my review, but for now all you need to know is that Nolan has once again thrown a dart at a random back issue of New Scientist and used whatever phrasing it pierced as the scaffold for an action thriller with espionage overtones.
In this instance the protagonist known cleverly as The Protagonist (John David Washington) finds himself subject to a technology called “inversion” which is being used to send objects, information and ultimately people backwards in time from somewhere in the future. These antagonists-to-be, who we are told exist at a point in time subject to irreversible environmental catastrophe, are using Russian billionaire Andre Sator (Ken Brannagh) as a vessel for their machinations, which involve the assembly of a physical algorithm sent from the future to reverse the flow of time, bulldozing our past to make way for their future. Confused? I have bad news for you: you still have Nolan’s trademark purposeful obfuscation of dialogue to contend with.
The concept itself is simple: an object’s direction of travel through time can be reversed by placing it in a revolving room known as a turnstile, whereupon hilarity may ensue as fights, car chases and angry converstions take place between people and objects moving in opposite temporal directions. The problem, common to pretty much any movie plot incorporating time travel, is that it only makes sense so long as it is narratively convenient, and not so much the second you stop to think about any of it. But, as Clemence Posey’s massively underused scientist suggests, “it’s better if you don’t try to understand it; just feel it.”
At two and a half hours long, Tenet could probably do with reversing some of it’s own flow of time, but in actual fact I never found myself particularly bored. Admittedly, a lot of that time passed playing games of “guess what the person mumbling beneath a gas mask in front of a jet engine just said,” but even on a second viewing where I picked up the loose plot ends and turned the subtitles on I still found things zipped along nicely, and I’d suggest this may actually be one of Nolan’s best in terms of pacing. Unfortunately a lot of the director’s established issues persist; if you want emotional involvement for your $200m then sorry, but you need to continue to look elsewhwere, and if you’re expecting female characters to be much more than damsels in distress then again, you’re right out of luck.
Once again Nolan also manages to insert himself into his movie, this time in the form of foppish dandy Neil (Robert Pattinson), who appears with increasing frequency as The Protagonist’s apparent handler, and a convenient mouthpiece for exposition who can get any confused audience members back up to speed ahead of the next set piece. On this occasion our Nolan analogue gets a pass because I’ve grown increasingly fond of Pattinson and he’s a good deal of fun in this, and I find myself actually looking forward to the next Batman movie.
But that’s by the by. Is Tenet any good? Certainly, I found it enjoyable enough to pass the time, but I don’t know that I’m going to add it to my collection any time soon. After a second viewing where the nuances of his performance became more obvious, my biggest take away was actually John David Washington. I know people keep saying they’d love to see Nolan do a Bond movie, but personally I think that’s one of the worst ideas imaginable. I would, however, love to see Washington do a Bond movie, specifically as Bond, and I can’t believe that’s not something I’m hearing anyone else mention in the wake of all this.
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project is a classic example of the premise being vastly more interesting than the execution. That premise stems from the obsessive recording of television broadcasts, primarily news and current affairs, undertaken by a former librarian and civil rights activist from Philadelphia, Marion Stokes. Stokes, a black woman, was initially concerned about portrayals of black people and the Civil Rights Movement on television news, but eventually amplified her interest to pretty much all current affairs, as portrayed on US television networks.
By the time she died, aged 83, in 2012, she had amassed more than 70,000 VHS and Betamax cassettes, containing more than 800,00 hours of footage, much of which was deleted from the archives of the broadcasters. After her death, her family sought someone to take charge of this incredible, if overwhelming, archive, with the San Francisco-based non-profit organisation, The Internet Archive, stepping up to the task, and aiming to digitise as much material as they are able and provide it to the public for access.
And that sounded really interesting to me: 35 years of news coverage, in which it should be possible to spot trends and overlooked matters that, in hindsight, were of major importance. There are any number of interesting narratives that could have been built from the material, even with the limitation that only a fraction of the it has so far been reviewed. What a disappointment, then, that that makes up perhaps 10-15 minutes of this hour-and-a-half-long documentary, with the rest the story of Marion Stokes herself, and I simply don’t care! Parts of her story are interesting, and it’s certainly valid, even necessary, to put some of it in there for flavour, but it’s what the whole film is about. What a total bust!
This is exacerbated by that spectacularly irritating modern documentary conceit, the reconstruction, though here that is in large part scenes of the back of the head of a woman in a wig, being driven around Philadelphia. It’s actually laughable.
Even the few bits of footage that are shown are not as impactful as the director, Matt Wolf, clearly thinks they are. In one section, four videos are shown together, running in real time, from a little before 9am on the 11th of September, 2001, from ABC, CBS, Fox News and one other (MSNBC, I think). It begins with the first network describing a possible plane strike on the World Trade Center, with the other networks gradually, over the course of a few minutes, reporting the story, with Fox News, who had been showing some vapid morning TV stuff, being last. It can’t be doubted that this is a dig at Fox News (who are, let us be scrupulously clear, evil and harmful), but there’s nothing here. No-one could have known at that time what was going on, and it’s literally a few minutes before Fox also pick up the story. George Dubya sitting in that classroom this is not. The footage itself is mildly interesting, but it’s a cheap shot, which is crazy given how many easy, legitimate targets Fox News offers each and every day.
If, like me, your interest is piqued by the idea of the archive, then just go and check out The Internet Archive, where many of the clips are available, often searchable with keywords, thanks to the closed-captioning many of the recordings contained, and give Recorder a body swerve. What a sad waste.
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