Posts Tagged ‘David Fincher’

They held the Oscars last weekend, and a weird ceremony it was too (at least, the little of it that actually made it onto the news).  Perhaps it’s just me and my unreasonable sentimental attachment to the theatrical experience, but it seems very strange and perhaps even wrong to have an Academy Awards ceremony for a year in which hardly any films have been released to the big screen: I think I’ve been to see about six genuinely new movies in the last twelve months, mostly during that brief July-to-October period when the cinemas reopened. Letting films which have only been available to screen via streaming sites win Oscars is just playing into the hands of those sites, and potentially damaging theatrical cinema itself.

Then again, Netflix has been playing this game for a couple of years now, sneaking one of its movies out with the smallest possible cinema release necessary for it to qualify for Oscar nomination. Most studios make prestige projects with more than one eye on the gong season, but in the case of a streaming site which normally doesn’t release films at all, it seems particularly calculated and mercenary (I am aware this is becoming a bit of a theme when I start writing about Netflix films).

This year’s Oscars tilt from Netflix took the form of David Fincher’s Mank. Shot in luminous black and white, it opens with the arrival at a remote Californian ranch of screenwriter, wit and general bon vivant Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), who is recovering from a broken leg suffered in a car crash. It is 1940 and Mankiewicz, his secretary (Lily Collins), and various other assistants are here to write the screenplay for a movie, to star and be directed by the prodigiously talented young Hollywood outsider Orson Welles (Tom Burke) – Welles will also get sole credit for the script.

The writing of this script is essentially a frame story for a film looking back on the previous ten years or so of Mankiewicz’s career in Hollywood, and particularly his relationship with the media tycoon and politician William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his wife Marion (Amanda Seyfried). Mankiewicz’s personal politics tend towards the left-of-centre (inasmuch as he has political beliefs, preferring to just be louchely witty when not drinking or gambling), quite unlike Hearst’s by this point – but it seems that Hearst enjoys having him around.

This becomes increasingly uncomfortable for Mankiewicz, as the ruthless power politics of Hollywood and California in general become more and more savage, and his own career begins to slide into decline as he alienates the studio bosses and generally makes himself unemployable. Perhaps these men, despite their lesser minds and imaginations, have realised more quickly than he the potential power at their command? Phony newsreels play a key role in the defeat of the Socialist candidate Upton Sinclair in a gubernatorial election.

The film’s thesis is that it is these experiences which influence the fallen-from-grace Mankiewicz when he is writing Welles’ film for him. That film turns out to be Citizen Kane, of course, which Hearst interpreted as a hatchet job against him and tried very hard to have stopped or suppressed – most people agree that Kane is indeed based on Hearst, but Mankiewicz’s motives for doing so are less clear-cut than the film suggests.

As noted, at least part of Netflix’s motivation for financing Mank seems to have been the expectation it would snag a few awards – which it has duly done, albeit mainly for its cinematography and production design. Why do I say this? Well, there are certain types of film that are much more likely to get attention from organisations like AMPAS, a set of boxes to be ticked.  One of the best bets is the box marked ‘Make Film About Hollywood Itself’ (the ‘Shoot In Black And White For Added Artsy Gravitas’ box is also good value). The fact this is a true-life tale of a well-remembered industry figure taking a stand on behalf of justice and integrity is also another factor in the film’s favour.

The fact that Mank is a movie about the origins of what’s still often hailed as the greatest film ever made (although apparently it has recently been the subject of a fierce challenge by Paddington 2) is obviously another point in its favour. The fact that this is a film about Citizen Kane in which Orson Welles is a relatively minor character is certainly an oddity: you might even argue that Mank suggests that Kane’s greatness is as much due to the contribution of Mankiewicz (a man with a long career as a Hollywood insider) as that of Welles (a colossal talent unable to find a place within the established studio system).

If you accept this reading, then beneath the surface the film is a little conflicted – the glamour of old Hollywood and its stars rubs up against the venality and ruthlessness of studio bosses (Louis B Mayer in particular gets it in the neck). Then again, perhaps this clash between dreams and reality is at the heart of all the films purporting to go behind the scenes in the movie business.

This one handles both aspects pretty well, at least on a visual level – all those awards were certainly deserved. What’s particularly clever is the way in which many of the scenes reference elements of Kane, even on a subliminal level: Hearst’s palatial mansion, with its own zoo on the grounds, inevitably recalls Kane’s retreat Xanadu; there are countless other references as well.

This kind of self-referentiality extends throughout the movie – transitions between the 1940 sequences and flashbacks are signified by captions in the form of stage directions – and initially I thought Mank was going to turn out to be a bit too clever for its own good: a lot of whistles and bells and great visuals but essentially just another example of the movie business gazing into its own navel while patting itself on the back (if you consider a film never really intended to run in cinemas to be a genuine part of the movie business, anyway).

In the end I think Fincher and Mank get away with it, mainly because of the strength of the central performance: I knew Herman Mankiewicz’s name, vaguely, before watching the film, but wasn’t really familiar with who he was; Gary Oldman brings him to life. It’s not the flashiest of turns – though Mankiewicz’s legendary wit certainly provides him with some good dialogue – which may be why it hasn’t brought him the same kind of acclaim as his (slightly hammy) performance as Churchill a few years ago. By the end of the film you do care about Mankiewicz and how his experiences have affected him. Oldman gets to do some good drunk acting, too, of course, as the screenwriter’s alcoholism and compulsive gambling are both dwelt upon in the movie.

Did Mankiewicz really write the bulk of Citizen Kane in less than a fortnight while permanently sluiced? It is at least an appealing bit of legend, although given that much of the ‘history’ presented in Mank has been challenged, one is inclined to doubt it. (If the rest of the film has the same level of historical accuracy as the scene at a 1930 script conference where someone describes a movie as being like The Wolf Man, a film which wasn’t made until 1941, then I am almost forced to conclude that Citizen Kane was never actually made at all, and our memories of it are just a case of Mandela syndrome.)

Mank is certainly worth watching, if only for the look and craft of the thing, and some great performances – as well as Oldman, Charles Dance is good value as Hearst, and there are decent turns from Tuppence Middleton, Arliss Howard and Lily Collins, too. It’s a witty and intelligent film that presents an interesting tale of life in Hollywood in the 1930s and early 40s. Whether that tale bears much relation to reality is another question, of course, but if nothing else the film reminds us that this has always been a complex and occasionally fraught issue.

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An everyday scene from a typical English workplace:

Your Correspondent (spying a colleague with whom he is on friendly terms): ‘Oh, hi [name of guilty party redacted] – how was your weekend?’

Colleague: ‘All right. Went to the cinema.’

Your Correspondent: ‘Oh yes, [other colleague’s name] told me she saw you. Gone Girl, right? What did you think?’

Colleague: ‘It was okay, but I was surprised that [MASSIVE SPOILER redacted].’


I spent the rest of the day following her around shouting ‘Rosebud is a sledge! Bruce Willis is a ghost! Darth Vader is his father!’ but the damage was done. I suppose it serves me right for not going to see Gone Girl at the weekend, but – hey! There was a Gerry Anderson retrospective in the next screen! What was I supposed to do?


Recent studies have suggested that having a story spoiled for you may not in fact impair enjoyment that much, so I suppose I can treat Gone Girl as an experiment to this end. (Of course I went to see it anyway.) Given that a big adaptation like this is relying on people who’ve read the book turning up to see it, it’s possible that the makers may have been bearing in mind the fact that much of the audience may have already known the story: it’s certainly not entirely dependent on shocks and surprises to work as a film.

David Fincher’s film, based on a book by Gillian Flynn, primarily concerns the marriage between Nick Dunne (Ben ‘I’m respectable again and loving it’ Affleck) and his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). Having met and got wed in New York, where both were writers, economic and family issues have led to their moving back to Nick’s home town in Missouri. But life has been tough regardless.

And it gets tougher. On the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, Nick returns home to find signs of a struggle and Amy nowhere to be found. He calls the police, like anyone would, and does his best to answer their questions, also like anyone would. But what rapidly becomes apparent is that things that are fairly unremarkable in the everyday running of a wobbling marriage can be horribly suspicious when viewed by a police detective looking for foul play. As some facts Nick would rather keep secret come to light, suspicion builds in the police, the media, and those around him – has he in fact done his wife in?

Well, obviously I can’t tell you that, but what I will say is that, before it plays its cards, the film does a very good job of making Ben (look, I’m entitled to call him that, we go back a long way – I actually paid to see Paycheck and Jersey Girl, for crying out loud) look like an ambiguous figure. And fortunately, the film does not hold back all its revelations to the end – halfway through it transitions from being a genuine mystery to an equally accomplished, and possibly even more gripping, psychological thriller.

I must confess that I did enjoy the first part of the film a lot – less obviously plot-driven, it allows the film to comment en passant on a whole range of topics. Some of these, such as the degree to which two people can ever really know each other, and the demands of marriage, are quite universal, but others will, I suspect, make this film of particular interest to the social historians of the future, particularly in its handling of the media – both the influence of social media, and the phenomenon of trial-by-TV – and its commentary on the sheer social damage caused by the economic collapse of the late 2000s. The shadow of the credit crunch hangs over this film like a fallout cloud, for money problems are at the heart of Nick and Amy’s travails – what happens to a marriage when one partner is forced to become totally dependent on the other for an income? What’s it like to feel trapped in a marriage by your own pre-nup agreement?

That said, the second half of the film is a terrifically enjoyable thriller, perhaps surprisingly so given it contains some tough material: there are F-bombs and more aplenty, some shocking man-on-woman violence, and one sequence of grand guignol gore that is all the more appalling for coming seemingly out of thin air. Even worse than this, perhaps, is the general theme of the film, which is bleak, bordering on the nasty – it makes marriage look like a blood sport, like something men and women do to each other rather than together.

That it works as it does is mainly down to Fincher’s skill in controlling the story and stopping its more startling aspects from seeming too prominent, at least until the audience has become properly invested in the characters. Without going into too much detail, this is a story which makes some pretty big asks of the viewer, but Fincher makes you agree to them quite cheerfully.

He’s helped by a really good cast: this is a story with a lot of significant characters, and they are all portrayed absolutely solidly. You can instantly believe in Tyler Perry’s superstar attorney, Kim Dicken’s cautious detective, or Carrie Coon’s concerned sibling (well, apart from the fact that she’s nearly a decade younger than her supposed twin – oh, Hollywood!). But that said, the film really depends on its two leads: Rosamund Pike isn’t the most obvious choice for the leading lady of film of this prominence, but she grabs a good part and runs like the Devil with it. Ben, meanwhile, gives a properly rounded movie-star leading man performance, quite as good as anything else he’s ever done. Given that Ben is currently heading for the big screen as a moderately unlikely and distinctly controversial Batman, I suspect all his performances until then are going to be scrutinised for their potential Wayneyness: well, here he delivers his customary wit and charm, but also the ability to seem completely ambiguous (if not actually chilly), not to mention a capacity for brutal rage. I think Ben’s going to be a very different sort of Batman, and potentially a very good one.

That’s for the future, however. For now, Gone Girl is a very accomplished and entertaining film, if one that should leave the viewer uneasy and unsettled. In a way it’s almost a shame it didn’t come out later in the year, because it’s certainly good enough to be a contender for major awards come next spring. The question is simply whether or not it will still be remembered then. A shame, as everyone involved is on top form.


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If you were to saunter into the offices of any major movie studio and request $80 million to engage the cream of international talent so that they might make a lavish two-and-a-half-hour-plus movie about sexual violence against women, featuring all manner of graphic content and centring on a protagonist who is a) bisexual and b) possibly insane, you would most probably find yourself rapidly expelled from the same offices very shortly afterwards, possibly not even via the door. Unless, of course, said movie had a built-in audience, due to it being an adaptation of a massively popular novel by one of the most bankable names in modern literature. Some say he was a journalist who investigated and campaigned against the extreme right. Others say that he spent time in his youth training African women to use grenade launchers. All we know is, he’s called the Stieg (Larsson).

Yes, it’s David Fincher’s value-for-money adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – one of those books which everyone seemed to be reading just a couple of years ago. I, whether fortunately or not, am one of the eight people in western Europe not to have done so, nor have I seen the Swedish movie version of this story. So at least this review will be unpolluted by outside influences, for a change.

Set in Hollywood Sweden (i.e. everyone speaks English – this produces some very strange and intrusive effects, such as when the print on a cheque is in Swedish but the script in English), Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading investigative journalist who’s facing a career crisis after a lawsuit goes against him. He is thrown a lifeline when elderly tycoon Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) retains his services, ostensibly to write his biography but really to investigate the vanishing of his niece decades earlier. The Vanger clan are a prickly and deeply dysfunctional group, with more than one former Nazi sympathiser amongst them, but – rather to his surprise – Blomkvist makes progress. Wanting to corroborate his findings, he retains the services of a superbly efficient investigator the Vangers have previously used to run a background check on him.

She is Lisbeth Salander (Mara Rooney), a striking and uncompromising figure: androgynous, fiercely self-contained, heavily tattooed and pierced (she is the title character). The events of a traumatic childhood have left her emotionally aloof, and also the ward of the state. Nevertheless she leaps at the chance to assisting in hunting down a serial killer who preys on women, not realising the danger that she and Blomkvist may be placing themselves in.

First things first – judged by any reasonable standard, this is an excellent thriller. The distinctly Bond-esque title sequence with accompanying rock song may create entirely the wrong set of associations for the audience, but it soon becomes clear that this is a more thoughtful and measured kind of film. Indeed, there’s almost something of Agatha Christie in the set-up of the central mystery plot. Said plot is satisfyingly convoluted and clever, and the movie never insulted my intelligence – if anything, it insulted my stupidity in that a few small points whizzed past a little too swiftly for me to keep track of them! This did not spoil the overall experience, though.

Beyond this, though, the film has a peculiarly sprawling structure. It’s quite a long way into what’s a long movie before Craig and Rooney team up (the chemistry between them is excellent and both give terrific performances), and prior to this it’s a little unclear what the significance of the Salander character is.

This is particularly the case given that the thread about Blomkvist and the Vangers is, initially at least, rather genteel. The scenes with Salander, on the other hand, frequently plunge into graphic unpleasantness with virtually no warning. This is why this movie has been slapped with a box-office-unfriendly 18 rating in the UK, and deservedly so. They are not pleasant to watch: there is considerable sexual violence and other explicit abuse. I could feel the atmosphere in the auditorium change the first time one began, and shift again whenever one seemed to be in the offing.

Then again, if people find scenes of rape and abuse shocking, that’s surely only for the best? A friend who saw the film said he could have done without them – but interestingly, he didn’t come out and say they were gratuitous. They absolutely aren’t – to me they’re central to the theme of this film, which is the effects of sexual violence on both the perpetrators and the victims. Given the devaluation of violent crime in so many movies and TV shows (victims blown away by the score in CSI, hunting killers treated as a jolly, jokey game in Midsummer Murders), the extreme nature of some sequences in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo serves to make clear exactly the character of the offences the film is dealing with. I found parts of this film difficult to watch, it’s true – but that’s as it should be, in a civilised society. I thought this was a brave and commendable choice on the part of the film-makers.

David Fincher’s direction is fluent, Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is deft (and even shot through with dark humour in places), and all the performances are accomplished: Rooney and Craig particularly so, while a rather good Stellan Skarsgard pops up to fly the thesping flag for the home team. (Nearly everyone else is British or American – accents are rather variable.)

What really surprised me was how much of a European sensibility this film managed to retain – in its careful pace, its refusal to provide the obvious set-pieces one would expect in a Hollywood thriller, and most of all in its closing stages. With what’s been presented as its central plotline apparently resolved, the film nevertheless proceeds for quite a long time, dealing with various other subplots. Salander, who has grown in significance throughout the story, is suddenly unequivocally the main character and the film is now about her on a more personal level. It’s a little jarring, especially when the story then suddenly concludes, without presenting any easy answers and in a dismayingly downbeat fashion given what’s preceded it.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to imagine another conclusion to a very solidly-made film with a distinct flavour and toughness of its own. Lots of little bits of it resemble other things to some degree or other – but taken as a whole, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a unique experience, and a high quality movie. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s only that fact that stops me from giving it a very strong and unreserved recommendation.

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As if we weren’t already deluged with movies based on books, movies based on plays, movies based on comics, movies based on computer games, movies based on theme park rides, and movies based on (for heaven’s sake) toy ranges, it seems we now have to contend with movies based on social networking websites. Presumably iPhone Apps: The Beginning is also on the way. (Oops, I forgot – movies based on board games. Don’t laugh – Battleship: the Movie is currently filming, starring Rihanna.)

I refer, inevitably, to David Fincher’s The Social Network, charting the origins and rise of just such a popular site, which I understand is called ‘Facebook’. The easy capsule plot outline here is ‘how the dream turned sour’, though according to the movie Facebook’s ultimate origins were fairly bitter to begin with, inspired by brilliant but socially inept Mark Zuckerman (Jesse Eisenberg) getting chucked by his girlfriend and executing a spiteful, inspired on-line revenge.
The general direction things will take is signposted early on by the film’s being structured in the form of flashbacks to two separate lawsuits brought against Zuckerman, one by a trio of preppy types who claim he stole their idea, the other by his former best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who believes himself wrongly forced out of the corporation Facebook ultimately became.

I’m the kind of person who’s quite happy to use a website, but who (a smattering of ancient HTML aside) has absolutely no idea how it works. Being sensible people, the film-makers (Fincher and scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame) almost entirely avoid techie jargon and concentrate on the personalities involved. The exact issue of whose idea Facebook actually was is somewhat fudged (probably to avoid the film-makers’ starring in a lawsuit of their own), but the movie goes on to recount its spectacular success as it spreads from being limited to Harvard students, to universities across the USA, to the point where… well, my ‘People You May Know’ box is usually full of Kyrgyzstanis, Taiwanese, and other assorted foreign coves. Along the way Zuckerberg falls under the sway of dangerously glamorous internet entrepreneur Sean Parker (an accomplished turn from a shrewdly-cast Justin Timberlake), at which point the friendship of the two founders comes under increasing and ultimately fatal pressure.

This is a sharp and witty film (as you would expect with an Aaron Sorkin script, you can crack the dialogue like a whip), but not an especially warm one. Of the principal characters, only Saverin emerges as truly likeable. Eisenberg’s central performance is pitched superbly, keeping Zuckerberg just about sympathetic without omitting any of his (allegedly) less attractive qualities. But beyond this, the film casts a somewhat baleful eye across all of its characters and settings – the opening sequence intercuts deftly between Zuckerberg and his pals gleefully hacking into private information in order to set up a fairly misogynistic website from a cramped bedroom, and the privileged Harvard in-crowd pursuing their own, deeply hedonistic interests, and the film appears to find nothing appealing about either of them. And this comes across as simply the wider world in microcosm. The view of society I came away from this film with was of a rigidly hierarchical and ultimately rather unfair and unforgiving construct. (Though, you know, personal opinions may be creeping in there, and what are you going to do? It is, after all, the only game in town.)

'...and if the site really takes off, we may even be able to pay the electricity bill.'

The Social Network has apparently drawn some stick for various reasons, some of them factual – there are claims that the chronology is inaccurate and even (shock horror) that some of the technological details are wrong. I have to admit that as a moviegoer this sort of thing doesn’t particularly bother me, certainly not in comparison with things like story, performance and direction. The Social Network scores notable hits in all of these areas, and everyone involved seems to agree that the general thrust of the story is true. And it’s not like it’s being marketed as a documentary, or anything. (And if Mark Zuckerberg truly objected to the way he’s depicted here, surely he could have bought the film company and had the negatives burned, or deleted, or whatever.) It’s a compelling and entertaining account of something of at least passing interest to a massive number of people in the world today, with thoughtful things to say about the way we live. And if it isn’t the truth, as John Ford once said, go ahead and print the legend.

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