My wife and I took in the 1990-something classic, Presumed Innocent, this evening. The big takeaway is that Raul Julia dominates the movie in the role of Rusty’s defense attorney, Sandy Stern. In hindsight, I suppose I knew this because the only parts of the movie I remember involve Julia. Otherwise, it is an interesting and somewhat complicated plotline, and I actually had to pay attention to keep up.
A couple of big moments: In a brilliant cinematic moment, Stern stands behind the prosecutors during his cross, and we get to see the DA and ADA’s reactions as he dismantles their witness. The scene where he undresses Dr. “Painless” Kumaga bests the climax of A Few Good Men, for sure. It must be nice to see a script like this come your way.
The Investigation is a six-part, roughly four hour, Danish drama that has aired on HBO over the past few weeks. The subject matter, of course, is the investigation into a grisly death of a female journalist and the attempts to piece together her macabre demise. The result is a meditation on the fallibility of prioritization, the limits of human knowledge, the vastness of oceans, and the wonderment of dogs.
It is visually breathtaking in spots, and it is visually suffocating in others. It is hard to believe the capabilities of human ingenuity and modern technology, and yet there are still limits on what is knowable. What is certainly remarkable is where The Investigation runs up against this boundary.
And, finally, I do wish that these extraordinary productions didn’t focus so disproportionately on the ghastly murders of young women.
With a David Fincher movie, you know you are going to see a well crafted work of art at the highest standards of the cinematic craft. Fincher himself championed (the rumor was part-owned) one of the first cinema grade digital cameras, the Viper, which was groundbreaking back in the aughts. With Mank, I’d also congratulate Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt on some exquisite and indelible images. If you’ve ever been up to Hearst Castle for a visit and imagined what the grounds must have been like back in the days when Chaplin was a regular house guest and tickling the ivories after dinner, this film will give you some idea. Famously, newspaper mogul W.R. Hearst kept a menagerie including escaped zebras that still roam San Simeon to this day. In short, it’s really a beautiful movie.
Gary Oldman is transcendent in the role. He becomes Mank in a way that we will forever associate with someone who we hadn’t really thought that deeply about before. It’s a profound performance in its subtlety. He takes on a character under all kinds of pressure and brings levity and in turn empathy from the audience. Gary Oldman is someone else who merits our high expectations.
Perhaps oddly, Citizen Kane, the film that this one revolves around, though drummed into my brain in the countless film classes I’ve taken — and the subsequent passing on of such drumming to my own film students — has never really spoken to me. I’d rather curl up to say, It’s a Wonderful Life or Strangers on a Train. If I’m supposed to go crazy for deep focus shots, there is always Ozu (Master Japanese Director, not Greek alcohol, though I’m sure there’s an argument that can be made.)
What does strike me about Mank and Kane are the close-ups. As was done with great precision and emotional effect by Director Neil Butler in this years’ fabulous short, “Herzog & Morris”, the extreme close-up can work like a punctuation mark on an island all its own. Editorially, it doesn’t have to graphically match on action, it doesn’t have to flow seamlessly from the previous or following shot. It can just be there saying, check me out.! Just like that.
The genius here is the threading of these purely cinematic punctuations within the great theatre that, in this case Gary Oldman, brings to the role of Herman J. Mankiewicz. Mank, a mensch who saved an entire town from the Nazi’s but is himself drowning from the bottle. In real life, he would die the year after writing the script for Citizen Kane. The film also gets into his battles with Meyer, his employer and unscrupulous if not downright evil head of MGM. Though Meyer, Wells and Hearst for that matter, are painted in caricature in order to focus more on the relationship between Mank and Hearst’s mistress, the Brooklyn actress and future philanthropist, Marion Davies, played convincingly by Amanda Seyfried.
The film also takes a stab at the sociopolitical milieu and the crushing hand of the studio and dominant political class. These sub-plots work in the sense that we can get to know Mank better in relief; as a man with a conscience, a backbone, a gift for storytelling and ultimately a disease that he couldn’t escape.
If you have Netflix, I highly recommend this adventure and if you don’t, I’m sure that this title will find its way to your library’s shelves or streaming service soon enough.
LnD not so recently experimented with the Netflix Party Chrome screen sharing extension. This really didn’t go anywhere as there was no one there in person to poke D awake, like there is in real life.
Since then I’ve learned that Netflix Party Chrome extension is most popular as a hack that kids use to thwart parental controls — cool!
Once we got past the need to use an emphasis in the word biopic (/ˈbīōˌpik/) I was off to the races on my review. These two films include some high powered talent but only one hit the mark for me.
In The Two Popes, Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Bergoglio the future Pope Francis and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict leave you with the feeling that they were both born to play these roles.
But this is not your Dad’s Pope movie. And it’s not a simple good Pope vs. bad Pope story. The one major standout element of this film, besides the uncanny acting, is the scope and originality of the cinematography.
If you’re settling in for a film where two dudes sit on a bench and have a theological conversation for two hours you are going to be sadly disappointed. Two Popes moves, even wide angle shots track, overhead shots go right through helicopter rotors and the torture scene will stand your hair up at attention. It’s not a movie about romanticizing the past but examining the current situation through it.
On the other hand, The Iron Lady is a film where you never get away from the fact that this is Meryl Streep playing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The camera lingers on her. You start to wonder, who was the Director? Was Streep the Director? (No. No she wasn’t. (Phyllida Lloyd.) This isn’t some vanity piece. And Streep who no doubt uses an Oscar statuette as a toothbrush holder has got more chops than Chopin at an Austin BBQ. In fact, she slays in another Netflix film with Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman, directed by Soderbergh, The Laundromat. But here, she never gets lost in the character and so we can never transcend her being her fabulous self. We can never really understand the complexities of the times and the struggles she may have had with her choices. (Yes, Streep won her, yawn, third Academy Award for this role).
You don’t have to agree with someone in order to find them interesting. Often, it’s quite the contrary. But The Iron Lady seems stuck in a debilitated present, that lacks movement, that lacks a living history—and motivation. If a film doesn’t offer the audience transcendence, even on a visceral level, the most basic level that cinema can give, then the audience will also never get perspective on either the historical figure as real person or their own lives in relation to that figure.
In terms of biopic, it’s really a challenge to make a sweeping historical film meaningful. There are so many possible storytelling detours and dead ends. It’s easier and I’d argue more effective to take a situation, like in the 2018 Ruth Bader Ginsburg film, “On the Basis of Sex” and turn your narrative around that. That film was about the late great Notorious RBG’s first time arguing a case in court as an attorney. And by concentrating on those specific events, the story speaks to universal truths. However, this is not to say a sweeping biopic can’t hit you hard or inspire you, because it’s achieved with aplomb and passion in The Two Popes.