Monday, December 21, 2020



It has nothing to do with Covid or Christmas or the faltering US Postal Service. My absence, in terms of review and commentary, is all about not wishing to come to grips with the job. My reticence to go forward might be clearer if one takes into consideration that the Netflix presentation of Mank has, thanks to predictable Hollywood hype, become one of the more self-important events of the Academy season. Everyone, it seems, is on board to heap praise upon the film and its makers. There are all sorts of reasons: a movie that takes place in Hollywood that is about one of the great episodes in the storied history of that community, a talented and famous son taking on the work of his not-so-famous (or talented) father, and the whole piece populated with Hollywood legends. No wonder the epicenter of show business is all agog. There is, it seems, a lot of pressure to get on board. And I am having trouble with that.

Let me go on to something else… please. I have finished streaming the more than 150 episodes of the decades’ old series The West Wing. Well, that (at least) is something for which I can thank Netflix. By the time this is read, the series will likely have already moved to HBO MAX where it is bound to get some deserved hype on its just-in-time for Christmas arrival. The West Wing may be the best Network television series ever made. Not sure why I type “may be” (for I am relatively sure it is the BEST… ever); perhaps, I didn’t want to leave the door open for debate.

I trust you have all seen the series, but if it has been more than a decade since you saw it last… see it again. It is about America at its best and the ensemble cast is the finest ever assembled. The writing is superb as is the direction and production. Thank you, Aaron Sorkin, John Wells, and everyone else connected to this marvelous series.

From the sublime to The Undoing. Shame on you David Kelly… one of the better writers of his generation, I am surprised at his mishandling of the screenplay of this six-part HBO MAX series. A lovely cast---headed by Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant and Donald Sutherland---does its level best … and I am okay with Kelly’s “B-movie” aspirations. I am not okay with his succumbing to convenience…and am frustrated at not being able to fully disclose anything further for fear of despoiling even more about what is the unhappy result of this teleplay. Suffice to say, I literally hate a show where an intelligent character must do something incredibly stupid for the author to make the piece come out the way he or she wishes. There is never an excuse for this in my mind, but for David Kelly…hey, remember Boston Legal (about which I once wrote “Better than David Mamet, and Kelly does it 22 times a year”)? Mr. Kelly, you owe your audience better than this. Still, lest it go unsaid, any series with this many close ups of Nicole Kidman cannot totally be dismissed as unworthy. She is talented….and GORGEOUS.

Hillbilly Elegy (Netflix) presents a different set of problems. The beautiful Amy Adams is anything but in this dreary piece which also features a bedraggled Glenn Close. I understand actors like to demonstrate their craft by eschewing makeup and glamorous costuming, I readily concede the art form championed by Dorothea Lange and John Steinbeck and brought to the screen by the likes of John Ford and Robert Rossen. What someone forgot to tell director Ron Howard and writer J.D. Vance is you can do all of that but producing a yawn should not be an option. Hillbilly Elegy is a dreary movie that once again forces me to nitpick Netflix.

Once or twice in the past I have made a passing reference to the HBO series Watchman. Finally, I gave the show the attention it deserves… and you should too. The acting ensemble is wonderful, and the dialogue turns out to be some of the smartest heard on my television screen. The production is lush, the special effects are… well, special… and the nine episodes build to a most satisfying conclusion.

Why has it taken me so long to get around to this? I believe I was at first put off by the mix of the comic book-super hero genre coupled to racial social/political commentary.  I just didn’t get it. At first. Well, what can I say? My bad. Turns out patience is a virtue, and just a little of that with Watchman goes a very long way. Jeremy Irons, Jean Smart, Lou Gossett, Jr are other reasons to stick with this (turns out to be) wonderful ride. The only thing I shall add to this Watchman commentary is the all too obvious watch, man.

Having run out of excuses, I now turn my attention to Mank (Netflix), a movie about the man (Herman J. Mankiewicz) who wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane and how that cinema classic came to be. I really wanted to like this. I watched it a second time, not only to give the film a second chance, but to try to understand better what was not working for me. There are things (many things) about the movie that I liked… but what about the “regular audience,” the “civilians” who make up the bulk of the Netflix audience?

I am a film buff. Or at least I used to be. So far as I am concerned, Citizen Kane is one of the top two or three movies of all time… I am a college graduate, whose major was political science, and to top that off I am 83 years old! I know who Upton Sinclair was, I worked at Louis B. Mayer’s MGM studios, and I have met many of the characters that are portrayed in this movie and have even worked with some of them. I bring all of that to a movie of this lineage…stuff the typical audience member could not.

As if to test my theory I ran the film a second time. For this screening I picked a friend who is 20 years younger than I to view it with me. This “youth” had no idea Sinclair was more than an author from the long ago. Not a clue that he once ran for Governor of California and that he was vehemently opposed by the Hollywood establishment and other forces of the political right. There was a vague recollection of “maybe” seeing Citizen Kane some years ago, and barely an appreciation that the characters being depicted in Mank were all based on real folks… that there was a time when William Randolph Hearst was arguably the most powerful man in America, that there was a real Marion Davies, an Irving Thalberg, and that Manx’s younger brother, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, was the writer/director of such films as All About Eve, Cleopatra, A Letter to Three Wives, Guys and Dolls.

Dear Director Fincher: It is incumbent upon any filmmaker dealing with this kind of material to sublimate the conceit that “everybody knows” and to have a line or two scattered about… maybe even a scene… that sets some of this stuff up.

I can understand the filmmaker’s reverence to the screenplay… after all, Jack Fincher (Director David Fincher’s dad) had written it, and over the years it had become a family heirloom. Still, a more objective eye, could well have punched up the dialogue. Herman J. Mankiewicz, the Mank of the title, was not only one of Hollywood’s top tier screenwriters, but he was also known as a great wit and a champion raconteur. It would be nice, therefore, if Gary Oldman’s Mank occasionally said something amusing. We are left to take Fincher’s word for it that Mank was a charmer and that is why Hearst and Thalberg (among others) kept him around.

There is also an obvious pun that is difficult for me to ignore referring to Gary Oldman’s casting. He is a wonderful actor, but for this part he is just too old, man. Mankiewicz died in 1953, more than a decade after Citizen Kane had been released and even then, he was years younger than Oldman is now. Point being, it is hard to believe this 60something actor should be playing the 30something Mankiewicz who so charmed Ms. Davies and all of Hollywood in the 1930s.

Enough. It is not my intention, nor is it my task, to beat up well-intentioned filmmakers. So, see Mank if you want, but first, see Citizen Kane (at least once…HBO MAX)) and then, to better understand the underlying political/social aspects of the period, see The Grapes of Wrath (Netflix). You will thank me.

And do not forget to stream The West Wing (HBO MAX). Consider that my holiday gift.



Barney Rosenzweig



No comments: