The Morning After: Dec. 14, 2020

Welcome to The Morning After, where I share with you what movies I’ve seen over the past week. Below, you will find short reviews of those movies along with a star rating. Full length reviews may come at a later date.

So, here is what I watched this past week:

Mank


Written by his father before his death in 2003, it took almost two decades for David Fincher to bring Mank to the big screen and whether or not you agree with its portrayal of the fraught relationship between legendary screenwriter Herman L. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and legendary director Orson Welles (Tom Burke), the film is no doubt a love letter to old Hollywood.

Filmed in black-and-white, the trajectory of Mank follows a similar one to that of the background subject matter of the film, Welles’ cinematic touchstone Citizen Kane. Whereas that film saw a present day Joseph Cotten searching through old acquaintances trying to uncover who Rosebud was and why she was the last name on Charles Foster Kane’s lips as he died, this film has all the parade of characters move into and out of Mankiewicz’ bedroom as he recuperates from a near-fatal car accident. There is no word on a man’s dying lips to propel this film, however. Instead, the audience travels back-and-forth in time, another cinematic throwback to Citizen Kane, as we explore the backroom machinations of Old Hollywood and the rise and fall of Mankiewicz that eventually led to his current removal from Hollywood to write the screenplay for which he would forever be linked.

There are more than a few parallels between the original RKO Radio picture that became a filmic reference point for multiple generations of filmmakers and the Fincher film about the thorny subject of cinematic authorship. As the auteur theory emerged out of the French New Wave and the Cahiers du Cinema believe that the director is the true author of the picture, Citizen Kane may well be one of the best examples of that early theory at work. His use of camera positions, novel framing devices, and potent use of art to mirror and inform reality all came together in a landmark picture. While Mank has no illusions of being such a picture itself, it’s a fascinating look back at Hollywood in the 1930s and the evolution of modern cinema from it.

Although color films were gaining traction from their evolution in the mid-1930s to the heyday of 1939 with films like Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, a hallmark of the era in its own right, black-and-white filmmaking continued for another four decades before fading out almost entirely. The Apartment was the last black-and-white film to win Best Picture until Steven Spielberg supplanted that with 1993’s Schindler’s List. 2011’s The Artist was only the second film since the fade out of black-and-white filmmaking to win the coveted award and by all appearances, Mank could have been the most recent, but it ultimately falls short of the qualities a great Best Picture winner needs and that’s a singular focus.

Fincher’s film is a work of passion and drive even if it sometimes lacks direction and purpose. Every pain has been taken to ensure the film feels at one with the Golden Age of Hollywood nearly a century ago, down to the cue marks in the upper right hand corner to signal when a key reel of the film is ending and a new is beginning. Although we are a very long way from the necessity of changing reels mid-projection, they are the most significant element of the film that genuinely tries to tie itself into the glory days of cinemagoing, a period that may have reach its own evolutionary point in 2020, a strangely poetic transitional film.

The film does more than just act as a cinematic transition from our era of mass audiences heading to the theater for a shared experience to whatever rises from the ashes of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also a strangely fitting look back at an era of political upheaval in California not dissimilar from what is going on today. The film goes to great lengths to compare that period where upstart Democrat Upton Sinclair is labeled a socialist with pie-in-the-sky dreams that will break the backs of business in the state to recent political movements. While the film is striking in that regard, it’s a notion that could have been and has been explored countless times. Yet, somehow this film feels even more prescient in its own exploration of the past.

The Prom


Filmmaker Ryan Murphy has been the belle of the television ball for more than a decade now, having turned sensational high school musical Glee into a phenomenon, brought us the frightening anthology series American Horror Story and countless other well-regarded projects in between. Yet, the big screen has never been his playground. The Prom, released on streaming platform Netflix, won’t be his graduation into the big leagues.

Based on the hit Broadway musical of the same name, four faded Hollywood stars (Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells) descend on a repressed Indiana town to protest the cancellation of the prom because a young lesbian (Jo Ellen Pellman) wants to bring her girlfriend and the religious bigots in town would rather cancel it for everyone than allow someone who goes against their principles to be included. As the four selfish has-beens try their best to make the events about themselves, their own insecurities and frailties become liabilities, leading towards a heart-rending outcome for all involved.

Pellman is a superstar in the making with a voice as gorgeous as her soul. As the only out lesbian in her entire high school, she tries her best to stand tall against the animosity she receives due to the prom’s cancellation. Meanwhile, her closeted girlfriend (Ariana DeBose) struggles internally with her choice to admit to the world she’s gay too, especially since her mother (Kerry Washington) is head of the PTA and is the lead cheerleader for efforts to quash an all-inclusive prom.

Corden is horrendous miscast. There’s a scene early in the film when the theatre critic for the New York Times excoriates his portrayal of a wheel-chair bound FDR in his new musical with Streep’s Dee Dee Allen. The words that describe his performance could just as easily have been written about Corden himself. Considering the bountiful amount of gay talent in Hollywood and on Broadway, why could they not have found someone else to play the role who wouldn’t ham it up in the most tone-deaf, effete portrayal one could have imagined. He nails most of his musical numbers, but the whole thing feels utterly fake, as do the personalities of the characters played by Streep, Kidman, and Rannells. Ultimately, Corden is the only one who doesn’t entirely survive his early-film performance.

This is the best I’ve seen Streep in sometime, affected perhaps, but incredibly strong musically. How she could have been asked to deliver such mediocre turns in Into the Woods and Mary Poppins Returns is surprising. This film tells me that she’d be a brilliant addition to the cast of Follies should that film ever be made. I wouldn’t go so far as to say she’d make a great Norma Desmond in the long-delayed Sunset Boulevard musical, but if Glenn Close chooses not to take the part in the film version she’s producing, Streep would be an adequate substitution.

Taking the vainglorious Broadway actors out of the equation, Pellman and DeBose have a sweet, intoxicating relationship bolstered by an amazingly supportive, hardly recognizable Tracey Ullman and an only slightly out of his depth Keegan-Michael Key. Pellman is the best reason to see the film and while some of the musical numbers don’t quite land, they are all boisterous and joyous in their own ways with the film’s finale rightly earning the tears it elicits. Is it a hokey finale? Perhaps. Is it a predictable one? Certainly. Does it still make the audience happy? Absolutely.

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