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true story

Mank (2020)

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DIRECTOR: David Fincher

CAST: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tuppence Middleton, Joseph Cross, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton, Tom Burke, Toby Leonard Moore, Charles Dance

REVIEW:

David Fincher’s period piece, telling the (mostly) true story of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz, filmed in black-and-white and made to emulate the look and feel of an actual movie from the 1940s with meticulous verisimilitude, may be the notoriously perfectionist and visually dynamic director’s most technically challenging (and in some ways technically accomplished) project to date, but his laser-focus on capturing the look, style, and feel of a 1940s Hollywood motion picture results in a lukewarm emotional temperature. For Fincher, this has been a passion project and a labor of love; he’s working off a script credited to his own late journalist/essayist father Jack Fincher (although producer Eric Roth, who previously wrote Fincher’s 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, also had a hand in the screenplay), who wrote what would eventually become Mank in the 1990s. Fincher had originally intended to film his father’s script in 1997 after finishing The Game, envisioning it as starring Kevin Spacey and Jodie Foster, but plans fell through (his father never lived to see it finally completed, passing away in 2003). Alas, while one can respect what Fincher has accomplished here on a technical level, whatever passion may have gone into the making of Mank is not stirred by watching it. Mank is entertaining and engaging, especially for those with an interest in the subject matter or an appreciation for “Classic Hollywood”, but it’s at times emotionally uninvolving and appeals more to appreciators of witty dialogue and technical filmmaking craftsmanship than to the heart.

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Hamilton (2020)

DIRECTOR: Thomas Kail

CAST: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Christopher Jackson, Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Daveed Diggs, Jonathan Groff

REVIEW:

Counting Hamilton as a “movie” is using the term loosely, rather a live film recording of the original run of the 2015 Broadway musical featuring its original cast, but while no filmed recording can fully recreate the immersive nature of seeing a show live, Hamilton‘s release on online streaming service Disney + (following Disney outbidding all competition to call dibs on the film rights) gives a chance for those who missed or could not afford the opportunity to buy Broadway tickets, or those who wish to revisit the play’s original run with its original cast, a chance to experience the phenomenon for themselves. A musical adaptation of Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, with Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda composing the songs, writing the lyrics, and starring in the title role, Hamilton deserves its success and popularity. While non-musical fans might not be converted, for those to whom the medium appeals, it’s a lively, lavish, passionate production of the highest quality combining rap, pop, and showtunes to turn a biography into an engaging and energetic modernized history lesson that both educates and entertains.

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Just Mercy (2019)

DIRECTOR: Destin Daniel Cretton

CAST: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rafe Spall, Tim Blake Nelson, Rob Morgan, O’Shea Jackson

REVIEW:

Just Mercy is an example of an entry in a well-traversed genre—the “based on a true story” courtroom/social justice drama—that doesn’t transcend its expected tropes but elevates them. It’s a well-made, well-acted, stirring, compelling, and affecting docudrama telling the story of a true miscarriage of justice that forces viewers to face the uncomfortable question of how many other similar stories have gone untold.

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

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DIRECTOR: Marielle Heller

CAST: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper

REVIEW:

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, loosely based on a 1998 Esquire article “Can You Say Hero?” by journalist Tom Junod (with some names changed), is a well-intentioned, feel good ode to beloved television icon Fred Rogers (better-known simply as Mr. Rogers), whose children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran from 1968 to 2001 (Rogers passed away in 2003). To that end, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is an inoffensive, sweetly sentimental little movie whose quietly affecting moments sometimes get lost amidst its own treacly earnestness (though, considering I might apply those last words to the show it’s depicting, maybe I’m just not the target audience). Those with nostalgic fond memories of the late Mr. Rogers might find it a moving experience, while those indifferent or unfamiliar with the subject might be unimpressed.

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Ford v. Ferrari (2019)

DIRECTOR: James Mangold

CAST: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Caitriona Balfe, Noah Jupe, Ray McKinnon

REVIEW:

Ford v. Ferrari, director James Mangold’s (Walk the Line, Logan) docudrama chronicling events leading up and involving the 1965 and 1966 Le Mans, is likely to appeal to the same audience that appreciate Rush, Ron Howard’s similarly-themed docudrama. The key difference is that the central dynamic here, rather than the “frenemies” there, is in full-blown “buddy movie” mode—albeit not without a little tension—but both movies do an effective job of balancing visceral racing sequences with strong human drama.

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Dark Waters (2019)

DIRECTOR: Todd Haynes

CAST: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Mare Winningham, Victor Garber, Bill Pullman

REVIEW:

Dark Waters is a cinematic cousin to the likes of The Post and Spotlight; like those films, it tells the true story of a real-life legal battle pitting underdogs—in those two films, investigative journalists, here a corporate lawyer turned whistleblower and victims’ advocate—against Goliath “villains” (in The Post, it was the Nixon administration, in Spotlight it was the Boston Roman Catholic Church, here it’s chemical mega-corporation DuPont). To that end, it’s a stately, well-crafted, albeit unexceptional drama that both provides some viewers with an eye-opening education (albeit one some viewers might have preferred to have gone without) and stokes a little justifiable outrage about a corrupt self-protecting system.

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Midway (2019)

DIRECTOR: Roland Emmerich

CAST: Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Luke Evans, Mandy Moore, Dennis Quaid, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Keean Johnson, Luke Kleintank, Darren Criss, Tadanobu Asano, Etsushi Toyokawa

REVIEW:

One goes into “a film by Roland Emmerich” with tempered expectations. I wasn’t expecting the next great war epic, but I had—I thought—reasonable expectations of something along the lines of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor; some big-scale war action intermixed with corny human drama. Alas, even for those modest expectations, Midway fails to deliver, once again begging the question of why such a hack as Emmerich continues to have his relentless mediocrity rewarded with gigs directing big-budget disaster/war movies. In fact, while I’m no Michael Bay fan, one could say that at least Bay knows he makes big, dumb action flicks where lots of stuff blows up real good. Emmerich occasionally displays pretensions of helming historical epics, and here (as usual) his reach exceeds his grasp.

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The Current War (2019)

DIRECTOR: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

CAST: Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston, Matthew Macfadyen, Tuppence Middleton

REVIEW:

Filmed in December 2016 and originally slated for a 2017 release, The Current War has finally found its way into theaters two years later after becoming collateral damage of the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal and the subsequent downfall of The Weinstein Company (after the beleaguered Weinstein Company sold off The Current War‘s film rights, they were eventually bought by little-known 101 Studios). This finally released version comes out under the label “The Director’s Cut”, claiming it represents director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s original vision before Harvey Weinstein got his hands on it and, as was notoriously his wont, started chopping and editing (this is supposedly the original version which played at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017, not Weinstein’s edit, which was never released). In retrospect, the film’s turbulent and meandering behind-the-scenes journey to its low-profile delayed theatrical release might have been a more eventful story than the film itself. A movie about the fledgling electrical grid and the men vying for dominance over it is not inherently cinematic, and no matter much director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon tries to spice it up with visual flair, The Current War remains a rather drab history lesson that fails to use a promising cast to its full advantage.

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Rocketman (2019)

DIRECTOR: Dexter Fletcher

CAST: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard

REVIEW:

Is someone in Hollywood trying to build a ’70s rock star cinematic universe? Close on the heels of last year’s Oscar-winning (albeit somewhat overrated) Bohemian Rhapsody, now comes Rocketman, covering one of the few ’70s-’80s musical icons who rivaled or surpassed Freddie Mercury for over-the-top flamboyance: Elton John. Director Dexter Fletcher, who took over finishing up Bohemian Rhapsody in place of a fired Bryan Singer but gets full creative control here, takes a different approach, styling Rocketman as a musical fantasy rather than a strictly conventional biopic. And of course, like Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman will take some nostalgic fans of the featured artist down memory lane.

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The Best of Enemies (2019)

DIRECTOR: Robin Bissell

CAST: Sam Rockwell, Taraji P. Henson, Babou Ceesay, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, Bruce McGill

REVIEW:

Quick on the heels of recent Best Picture winner Green Book comes yet another one of those standard-issue, well-intentioned 1960s “based on a true story” race relations dramas that are all the rage these days. Given the current political climate, a movie about a die-hard racist and an equally aggressive black activist getting past their enmity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but even more so than Green Book (an enjoyable, inoffensive little movie which was not, in my opinion, Oscar material), The Best of Enemies is standard issue and a little trite and does nothing to distinguish itself from all the other movies covering similar subject matter in recent years. It’s easily lumped in with the likes of The Help, Hidden Figures (also starring Taraji P. Henson), and Green Book, and doesn’t linger in the memory.

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