Shithouse

Dylan Gelula and Cooper Raiff

 

Shithouse is an attention-grabbing title for a film. It’s a title likely to put some people off, which is a pity because Cooper Raiff’s feature debut is a fantastic film.

Writer/director Raiff also stars, as a homesick dorky freshman at university miles from where he grew up. Alex has no friends, is nervous and generally out of his depth. As the film opens instead of being in bed with a girl he’s almost by accident managed to get somewhere with, he’s out on the street having a panicky phone call with his mother. He cries. The baby.

Co-star is Dylan Gelula as Maggie, the sophomore Resident Assistant at his dorm block, who Alex meet-cutes in just a towel after his jockish, party-animal room-mate locks him out of the room they cagily share.

He falls for her… hard. And she… well, she might have fallen for him too. But if Alex is confused about everything because it’s new and he doesn’t know how to deal with living on his own, Maggie is the sort of girl who has a box of condoms in her bedside table. She finds sex easy. Relationships not so easy. The slut.

Having established the thinnest of connections at yet another frat party, this unlikely couple joust, mock-joking about serious things and being mock-serious about jokey things, sharing a bottle of wine together as the wander about the night-time streets talking, talking talking, their mutual nervousness eventually morphing into a bond.

At one point Alex tells Maggie that his dad died. “Did that affect you?” she asks. “What… my dad died?” he pings back at her with arch incredulity.

How brilliantly observed and carefully written these scenes are between him and her, and how brilliantly played too, Dylan Gelula absolutely beguiling (me, anyway) with her portrayal of a young woman adept at hiding her insecurity.

There are other lovely performances in this film – the actors playing her friends, but most particularly Logan Miller as Alex’s room mate, Sam, a guy given to chugging beer, shitting his pants and offering the sort of advice about the way to treat women (ignore them!) that Alex is unlikely to accept because he’s hopelessly smitten.

Everything rings true. Raiff gets it all remarkably right.

 

Logan Miller and Cooper Raiff
Room-mate Sam and Alex at a wig party

 

A romance, goddamit, not a comedy drama, which is what the imdb is currently suggesting, it’s structured in absolutely classic style – boy wins girl, boy loses girl etc – and if you’re after viable comparisons then you’d have to look at early Richard Linklater, and at Before Sunrise, first and best of the Before trilogy, which saw Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in similar territory. I’d say also Normal People (though this was made first) for its exploration of a nervous young love so wary of the power of the emotion that it sabotages it. There’s something of that here too.

This couple, though, Alex the sensitive male and Maggie the cock-chasing female, flip gender expectations in ways that will doubtless have the Cultural Taliban foaming at the mouth, but make for an unusual drama giving both parties somewhere to go, and a conventional landing ground when they get there.

The best films wrap the viewer up in a bubble that exists for as long as the film can successfully keep disbelief, the outside world, at bay. This does that in such a totalising way that at one point I had to pause the film so I could take a breath on Alex’s behalf, before he engaged in his final desperate attempt to win the heart of fair lady.

They’re meant to both be 19, Alex and Maggie. In an attempt to find something negative to say about this film, to keep the notion of balance in play, I’m going to point out that both of them look older, because the actors are. And you can pick on that nit all you like.

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

The Cannibal Club

Ana Luiza Ros and Tavinho Teixeira

 

Sperm, vomit, blood and a critique of middle-aged masculinity, you can’t accuse The Cannibal Club of a lack of originality.

It’s a musical, no of course it isn’t, it’s a horror film but one that’s careful about the way it doles out the bloodshed. As the curtain rises, trophy wife Gilda (Ana Luisa Rios) is lying languidly on a sunlounger by a pool being eyed by the guy who cleans the pool. Meanwhile, her husband (Tavinho Teixeira) is preparing Gilda’s lunch, a plate of steak so bloody that it’s almost raw. Wink, wink.

The pool guy is actually a lusty young man at the peak of his sexual powers, something we get to witness scant minutes later as he services the wife long and hard, while the peeping husband, unseen, masturbates to climax before himself servicing the poolboy with a big axe through the head.

Blood is everywhere, and even more of it once the duo, naked, start dismembering the body.

This orgy of bloodletting over, The Cannibal Club settles down to tell an only slightly less gruesome story. This couple are part of Brazil’s elite and lead a life of exquisite ennui. He runs a security outfit but is so bored with the day to day that in one emblematic scene he can barely engage with two guys who are pitching new business.

 

The cannibal club meets
A cannibal club meeting… or should that be meating?

 

To add some spice to an otherwise flatlining life he attends meetings of the Cannibal Club, a group of middle aged men who gather regularly to watch sex followed by death followed by dinner – freshly barbecued meat, provenance assured.

She, well, she does nothing, to his great irritation, apart from attend parties with her husband. It’s at one of these parties that she sees something so shocking – yes, even more shocking than people being killed in cold blood – that to have witnessed it can only put her and her husband in danger.

Though it pretends otherwise, somewhere around this point The Cannibal Club shifts from being a horror movie into something closer to a home invasion thriller. As Gilda and Otavio wait for the inevitable attempts on their lives in order to secure their silence, they hire a new caretaker (Zé Maria), who will prove decisive as act two gives way to the action-filled act three.

Like a meal served up at the proper intervals, The Cannibal Club gives us gore for starters, main course and dessert, but in between it’s hellishly interested in the stuff middle-aged men do… or don’t do. Otavio has had his prostate removed, for example, and penetrative sex appears to be a thing of the past. He fusses around with one of those nose-hair gadgets while getting ready to go out. His peers spend their whole time bragging emptily about what they’re going to do when their wives are out of town. They ogle the behinds of unattainable young women. And they’re homophobic like you wouldn’t believe.

Protesting too much, all of them. The elite is effete is the political message if you’re looking for one, these cannibals standing in relation to wider society in much the same way that Dracula often does – as a drain on vital, youthful energy.

It’s all done with the lightest of tongues in cheek, almost-earnestly, with a luxuriously sophisticated soundtrack helping to lift the whole thing a couple of notches.

Don’t be too overwhelmed by that, though. For all that superficial layer of gloss, this is a “midnight movie”, best watched with a boozy, rowdy crowd whooping at the nudity, laughing at the gore and shouting “he’s behind you” as one more character is lined up for the chop.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

Elstree 1976

Stormtroopers resting between takes

 

The Kickstarter-funded Elstree 1976 looks like it’s going to be about Star Wars, not least because of the packaging and that being the year that the studio to the north of London was booked out by George Lucas to make his epic space adventure. It is, tangentially, but in fact it’s more a meditation on life and the way its rewards are portioned out.

Director/interviewer Jon Spira was born in 1976, which means he’s fanboy generation rather than first-hand participant, but he’s an able interviewer of the ladies and gents who were there. Not the Harrison Fords or Mark Hammils, but the likes of Paul Blake, Laurie Goode, Anthony Forrest and Pam Rose, people who took bit parts, were X Wing pilots, stormtroopers or one of those creatures in the bar scene with a prosthetic head obscuring their features.

There is one semi-name – Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett) and one bona fide name – Dave Prowse (Darth Vader), both of whom are happy to speak at length about their involvement, and both of whom seem to be in a state of slight bemusement about it all, the Star Wars phenomenon, I mean.

 

Pam Rose with Star Wars merchandise
Pam Rose: not everyone has been immortalised in Star Wars merch

 

In a way Bulloch and Prowse muddy the picture, because what Spira has in his other interviewees is people of a very distinct social group – the bright sons and daughters of parents from the higher end of the working class (in the British sense, of blue collar workers). It’s a portrait of what happens when you don’t have the shiny stuff – the connections, whether it’s through birth or education – and you opt not to embed yourself in a steady job offering gradual advancement and instead head out to be a buccaneer actor. In a way they are the true heirs of Han Solo.

What happens is: Blake, Goode, Forrest, Rose et al, people who have scrabbled about, had some good luck, some bad, worked in bit parts, in supporting roles, done voiceovers, worked on TV adverts, touring stage plays and the like, the life of the jobbing actor, in short. None of them is prosperous but they’ve all done just about OK.

Three intermingled themes run through the film – Star Wars lore (“So I said to George Lucas ‘How do you want me to play this creature?’ and George Lucas said to me, ‘Play it like you see in the movies’ ”), the struggles of the jobbing actor, and the convention scene, with just enough of the first to make the last two palatable if you’re really really just here for Obi Wan Kenobi.

Prowse is the most useful in terms of background, having something of a strained relationship with the franchise, exemplified by the standoff over how he signs his name at conventions. “Dave Prowse IS Darth Vader” is what he signs. “Dave Prowse AS Darth Vader” is what the suits want. Prowse continues on his own sweet way, and for his pains is excluded from the biggest conventions, when the name talent shows up.

Past tense. I’m writing this three weeks after Prowse’s death, aged 85. He was 78 when this was shot and comes across as a gentle and generous soul proudest of his work on the British government’s road safety campaigns as the Green Cross Man – child mortality dropped drastically.

And I’ve now just dived back in as I’m posting this because since then Jeremy Bulloch has also gone off to a galaxy far, far away. RIP.

The politics of the conventions are a bit nit-picky but fascinating, with some of the support players a bit sniffy that extras are now turning up and selling their signatures to the great unwashed.

Actually, taking that “great unwashed” instantly back, to a man and woman, the actors are extremely polite about the fans. How nice they are, how knowledgeable, how enthusiastic. And so they should be – these fans have provided some of these actors with a lifeline in the hard times, and a social network that they all seem to enjoy being part of. The Star Wars family.

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

Shuttlecock aka Sins of a Father

Major Prentis in a prison cell

Shuttlecock, it says on the IMDB, with the year 2020 in a bracket. Doesn’t that face look like Alan Bates’s, I thought to myself as the grainy image of a middle-aged man appeared on the screen. Since Bates died in 2003 this seemed unlikely. Up come the opening credits and there is the name Alan Bates at the top of the list. What am I watching?

A bit more digging and I see there’s another film called Shuttlecock on the IMDB, from 1991, also directed by Andrew Piddington and starring… Alan Bates. A bit more digging still and (thank you Wikipedia, and, yes, I have sent some money) a picture starts to emerge, of a thriller directed in 1991 and beset by financial and other problems. “The original film was never finished, really,” Piddington told the New York Times in 2014. It wasn’t very well received.

One final mystery I have only just solved by reading the New York Times piece that the quote came from is precisely when Piddington went back to the film and had another go at it. End credits suggest 2014 (they also suggest another title for the film, Sins of a Father), and that agrees with the NYT date, even though the IMDB is saying 2020. At the best of times films and dates are a foggy area.

Anyhow, here we are in 2020 with what the IMDB are now calling the “director’s cut”, though actually this Shuttlecock is more than that. Piddington has re-assembled some of his cast, decades on, and has constructed a framing device bookending the film – at the funeral of the Second World War hero Major James Prentis (Bates), John (Lambert Wilson), the plodding son he never quite rated, and doted-on grandson Martin (David Oakes) confront the rift in their relationship and the truth about the man they’ve come to bury.

Back we go in time – to original material shot in the 1990s – and in roughly 1970 Major Prentis has decided to up sticks and move to Portugal under the one-party rule of dictator Salazar, last of the 1930s gang of fascists which included Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. This is an odd decision for a man who’d proved his mettle behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany. Doubly so, since Major Prentis has just published an acclaimed memoir about his war exploits, after much prompting, and is the toast of London.

The Major's grandson and son
Martin and his father John confront the major’s legacy



There, in sunny Portugal, the major has a massive mental breakdown and is rendered mute. His son John (Wilson, looking much younger in this material, because he is/was) arrives with young son Martin (played in these sequences by Gregory Chisholm, who could not be located for the reshoots) to find out what’s wrong with the Major.

What then plays out is something along the lines of a Stephen Poliakoff drama, an excavation of the past see-sawing between the the wartime exploits of Shuttlecock (the Major’s code name), the late 60s/early 70s of the Major’s mental collapse in Portugal and the present day, where John and Martin are trying to get both the past and their current relationship straight.

Also, Poliakoff style, the drama is really concerned with psychological damage – the sins of the father – echoing down through time. The Major’s neglect of his son has had an effect on John and his grandson and also, it’s suggested, might have contributed to the end of John’s marriage.

But never mind all that, is the film any good? Yes it is. Piddington has successfully pulled the 1991 film out of the fire and by adding 20-odd minutes to it and re-editing has shaped a successful psychological drama that does justice to Graham Swift’s original novel.

For something interested in psychological developments it’s got big visual ambitions. So many cavernous, lushly shot spaces – the Liberal Club in London, the psychiatric hospital in Portugal to name just two, and an eye for a gorgeous old Mercedes winding along a night-time city street in Portugal. I’m also guessing that modern tech has allowed for some cleaning and regrading of the original material, to match it with the newer stuff. However it’s been done, it feels like an up-to-the-minute film, which makes Bates’s presence feel like even more of a bonus, if you’re a fan.

As for the man himself, Bates gamely barrels through Second World War action flashbacks he’s too old for but comes into his own in the Portuguese sequences – before, during and after his mute spell – while the son who never quite measured up digs into the history of a dad who might not be all he seems.

It’s a touch melodramatic now and again but all in all it’s a very satisfying psychological thriller, with the new material actually reinforcing the original idea, that the past has consequences, particularly if there’s something to hide.


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© Steve Morrissey 2020


Happiest Season

The family (plus guest) line up for a Christmas photo

Gooey, sentimental Richard Curtis movies are the template for this wannabe starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as Abby and Harper, a romantically linked couple going back to Harper’s parents’ for Christmas.

Being a mainstream movie about homosexual love – Lesbians, Actually – these young women are not in-your-face dyke-on-a-bike Sapphics but nice young women who just want to be accepted for what they are. Neither is heroic – Abby’s parents are dead and so she never had to come out to them; Harper has never told her parents.

And that’s the hook on which this film hangs. Is Harper going to fess up and simultaneously re-apprise them of the identity of her “friend” Abby? Or are the parents going to find out anyway, in some French farce, whoops-there-go-my-panties kind of way, or otherwise?

There’s a lot of good stuff in this film – Stewart and Davis can do no wrong, nor Alison Brie, who plays Davis’s ice-bitch sister. Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen are reliably cosy as the parents obsessed with projecting the image of the perfect family against which the great unfolding is going to happen. On top of that Garber’s Ted is a local politico, so squeeze that fact for all the ironic juice it’ll yield when it comes to putting on a false front.

The screenplay is by Clea DuVall and Mary Holland, both of them better known for acting than writing. It’s competent enough, hits the beats, and knows how these things are structured, but it’s a timid beast so wary of giving offence that it ends up draining any dreg of personality out of Abby and Harper. Stewart (the toughie) and Davis (the sweetie) struggle to put flavour back in with biggish acting but they know there’s only so much they can do before things start to look ridiculous.

Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis
Out (or not) on the town: Abby and Harper


Holland also has an acting role, and Richard Curtis fans will be quietly mouthing the name of the late lamented Emma Chambers as Harper’s sister Jane (Holland) goes through a familiar set of giddy, dizzy, over-sharing, standing-on-one-foot ploys. She is, it must be said, very good at it, and provides the film – a comedy? – with some much appreciated laughs. Dan Levy’s doing something similar, and extremely well, as Abby’s gay best friend, who offers camp advice and an eye roll whenever the orthodox queer-eye-for-the-straight-audience viewpoint is needed.

Does Aubrey Plaza need to be in this film? Not really. And she’s got to be there as some sort of favour to someone involved, a bit more power to add to the left-field marquee. She plays Harper’s one-time hometown lover and has a few scenes with Stewart, all of which give off the vibe of a couple who don’t get on that well. Which is a bit of a problem because we’re meant to be half forming the idea that there is some romantic frisson between the two, aren’t we? (YouTube promo clips and interviews don’t back up this “don’t get on” theory, I must say, but something isn’t quite right – maybe they were just in a rush).

The imdb’s trivia page tells us that it’s based on DuVall’s experience, so I had a quick look at her wikipedia page. And there, in her entry under Personal Life are only four words: “DuVall is a lesbian.” Which seems like a rather thin way of describing someone.

And that’s the problem with Happiest Season. A lack of detail. Sill, there’s romance (a bit), laughs (a few) and drama (ish).

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

Barkeep Mark (left) and the daytime regulars

 

A day in the life of a Las Vegas bar, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is also a portrait of the lifestyle of the professional barfly.

It’s actually the last day in the life of this bar, because the Roaring 20s is about to shut up shop for good. So there’s perhaps more of a celebratory air than usual as beers are downed and shots upended in farewell.

Michael is the first and last figure we see – weaving his way shakily across a road and towards the bar as it opens up in the morning. He downs a hair of the dog, has a shave and freshen-up in the toilets and then instals himself on his stool ready for the day’s banter and booze.

Slightly later and the TV is on – quiz shows, local news, old movies, televangelists – the jukebox is blasting out Aretha Franklyn, Michael Jackson and Kenny Rogers. Barman Mark picks up a guitar and serenades the few drinkers in there at this hour with a rendition of Roy Orbison’s Crying, a song for losers by the king of the genre. Mark’s got a good voice.

A bit later and Ira is the first casualty of drinking too much, his cracked voice so incomprehensible that his fellow soaks are asking for subtitles (very handy with this film). Ira abuses them all roundly – “You’re hideous…” “Go shoot yourself…” The phone rings. It’s Ira’s boss wondering why he isn’t at work. Ira doesn’t even know where work is.

A bit later still and Pam, swishing her hair and with a gleam in her eye, is showing her “60 year old titties,” to a an attractive younger man, who is gamely keeping the chat going while gently steering Pam into safer conversational waters. Pam later falls over and has to go home.

Still later, after a better dressed cohort of post-work drinkers has turned up, one of them berates Michael and his generation for fucking up the world. He wants a fight. Much later still, after trying to start something with another grey-haired regular, he ends up being thrown out.

 

Michael has a snooze on the bar
Michael catches a few zzzz’s at the bar

 

Anyone who has spent any time at all in bars will find all of the above familiar. Look at any bar in the light of day and what you see is a filthy hole. But in the semi dark, that’s where the fuzzy magic happens, and it’s that atmosphere that the camera of brothers Bill and Turner Ross captures, in one vignette after another – a Vietnam veteran, a trans woman, the barkeep’s kid out the back smoking weed and drinking (the next generation).

They’re big cameras too – we see them reflected now and again in the bar’s mirrors – and make their presence felt, inhibiting one “performer”, freeing another, though as the drink flows and flows, the cameras become increasingly just part of the background.

Some have wondered if Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a drama masquerading as a documentary. Though the smart, self-aware and articulate Michael claims he “used to be an actor” and evening-shift barkeep Shay has a biog on imdb (though no credits before 2020) suggesting she’s not just a barkeep, this ambiguity doesn’t ruin any enjoyment of the film.

Michael points out early on that he wants it to be known that he only became an alcoholic AFTER fucking up his life. He’d hate to be thought of as one of those self-pitying losers whose lives were ruined by drink, he loudly asserts. This sort of self-promotion, self-deception and self-aggrandisement is something everyone does, but drunk people do it a lot more transparently. It’s these glimpses into the human psyche via the boozer mindset that are this bittersweet, atmospheric film’s great gift.

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Godmothered

Eleanor and Mackenzie in the snow

Godmothered is Disney product. Written to a Disney template, cast, directed, lit and edited in an efficient business-like Disney way, it’s a comedy fairytale that popped off the production line and onto screens wrapped up all nicely and ready to go.

Its story even resembles an existing Disney film, Enchanted, the one about a fairytale character having a fish out of water experience in New York – comedy, romance, the full nine yards.

We’re in Boston this time, snow-encrusted, twinkly, Christmasy Boston, where magic is about to happen when klutzy trainee godmother Eleanor (Jillian Bell) arrives on an “assignment” to help out the little girl who wrote to her asking for help. Should Eleanor fail to help the little girl it’s curtains for her fellow godmothers, who thanks to brutal modern management diktats are threatened with redesignation as tooth fairies due to a lack of interest in their godmothering offer.

But, wires having got crossed and time having passed, the little girl is no longer little. Mackenzie has managed to grow up, get married, have two kids and lose her husband and is now a character more familiar in a Disney movie than even a fairy godmother – the sad, stressed urban professional with no time for kids, family, love etc etc.

These are the familiar arcs – the godmother is on a Shrek-style quest to save her magical kingdom, while Mackenzie is going to save her soul by being a bit less like a working woman. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Familiar, huh? You know what – Godmothered is great. Corny, obvious but great, a smile here, a tear there, cosy and gaudy as a Christmas jumper, the sort of film you’re convinced you’ve already seen but sit through all over again just because.

Tobogganing down a hill minus toboggan
Eleanor goes tobogganing… minus toboggan

To call the performances cookie-cutter sounds like an insult but isn’t. Everyone hits exactly the spot they’re meant to be hitting – Bell as the accident-prone naive godmother with wobbly wand skills and a huge heart, Isla Fisher as the cute, hassled news producer, Santiago Cabrera as the possible love interest co-worker, Jane Curtin as a wicked witch/evil queen figure, the godmother-in-chief who wants to close everything down. Everyone else – the kids with their own little problems, the dizzy narrator, the bonkers news anchors at the TV station where Mackenzie works, Mackenzie’s homely confidant sister, all slot perfectly into place, marshalled by director Sharon Maguire, who directed the two good Bridget Jones movies (one and three) and shows a similar skill here at just making everything work properly.

Write your own checklist and tick them off – a comedy animal (a raccoon called Gary), a kid throwing snowballs, a mean boss with a Scrooge-like disposition, classic music on the soundtrack (from Julie Andrews to Earth Wind and Fire) and on it goes.

The rom is Fisher’s, the com is Bell’s – both handle it well, though it’s Bell’s film by a country mile and towards the end it’s noticeable that things starts to sag when the fairy godmother is forced off the screen by one of those she-goes-away-but-comes-back-triumphant plot twists.

However, that necessary absence is kept to an almost indecent minimum. This film knows what it’s doing. Chalk another one up to Disney.


© Steve Morrissey 2020

Mank

Herman Mankiewicz at work in bed

 

Mank is the story, well known to film nerds, of the writing of Citizen Kane, for many the greatest film ever made. More exactly it’s two stories, one about writer Herman Mankiewicz dishing the dirt on press baron William Randolph Hearst (his model for press baron Charles Foster Kane) and his paramour Marion Davies, the other about director Orson Welles doing Mankiewicz out of a screen credit for his work.

Inserted almost as an afterthought is yet another story – about the socialist Upton Sinclair and his campaign to become governor of California, and how his guns were spiked by the movie studios.

Installed at a secluded cabin in the Mojave desert with a typewriter, a secretary (Lily Collins) and a minder in the shape of actor and Welles associate John Houseman (Sam Troughton), the alcoholic Mankiewicz is dried out and put under strict orders to churn out the screenplay, which Welles will later polish into the finished product. Early pages are “a bit of a jumble… a hodgepodge of talky episodes,” Houseman complains to Mank, handily nailing a problem with this film. It’s the screenplay, by Jack Fincher, father of director David. It’s verbose, explicatory and vaingloriously constructed in Citizen Kane fashion as a series of flashbacks setting out to explain the character of Mankiewicz.

This is a tragedy because this film is clearly a labour of love, gorgeously crafted by Fincher and a production team including DP Erik Messerschmidt and musicians Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. But the screenplay’s tin ear for dialogue starts to drag all the film’s other artistic decisions into question, most obviously David Fincher’s decision to shoot the thing as a facsimile of a black and white 1940s movie, down to crackly atmospherics on the soundtrack and visual artefacts on the “film stock”. It should be immersive; it seems just cute.

As, in flashback, we follow Mank’s glittering, booze-swamped trail through Hollywood, and his cagey relationship with Hearst (Charles Dance), Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and the mogul’s court, there’s plenty to like for lovers of old Hollywood stories – about Louis B Meyer, Irving Thalberg, Ben Hecht et al – though I suspect that the sort of people who like these sort of stories will have heard the ones we get here. The one, for example, about the Marx brothers mischievously grilling hot dogs in Irving Thalberg’s office because they were sick of his no-shows.

Lily Collins comes out of it best, as the prim but flinty British secretary delegated to keep Mankiewicz’s nose to the typewriter while he dries out and knocks out the screenplay for Kane in record time. Gary Oldman as Mank you can’t fault really, but it’s difficult to tell whether his performance is too mannered for the film or the film is too mannered for his performance. Or, again, it could just be the dialogue – Mank is funny, the screenplay keeps insisting, and while there is the odd zinger, much of his “wit” is baffling. Seeing a giraffe on Hearst’s estate while out walking with Marion, Mank demonstrates his rapier repartee by observing drily, “Now that’s sticking your neck out.” Both Oldman and Seyfried look a little embarrased.

 

Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies in full party gear
Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) at one of Hearst’s glittering parties

 

It is a film full of unquestionably fantastic performances in minor roles – Arliss Howard is superb as the constipated conservative studio boss Louis B Meyer, Ferdinand Kingsley similarly great as Thalberg, the “Boy Wonder” head of production at MGM, and Tom Burke is persuasive in a tricky role as a silky (still young, still slim) Orson Welles. But Jack Fincher’s screenplay is most interested in the treacherous Mankiewicz’s relationship with Marion Davies – a talentless bimbo if you go along with the Citizen Kane view of Charles Foster Kane’s mistress; a sensitive, clever and wise woman devoted to her older husband and aware of the mercenary nature of Hollywood in Mank. Along with Collins, Amanda Seyfried comes out of this film best, and is pretty much perfect as Davies too.

The fact that Welles in real life denied that Marion Davies was his model for Kane’s wife, Susan, and that there were many other possible inspirations for Charles Foster Kane, that’s not addressed at all. Which somewhat torpedoes some of the claims that this film tells it like it is.

The political afterthought – the Depression and failure of capitalism, growing unrest on the streets, the rise of socialism, Upton Sinclair and the conniving of the studios to neutralise him – deserves a film all of its own but ends up shoehorned into a space already tied up in knots trying to tell other stories. Bizarrely, contrarily, it’s actually the most interesting bit of it all – “fake news” and all that.

Fincher at his best, Fight Club or The Social Network, is trenchant, urgent and playful, but Mank has none of those qualities. For all its huge budget, its costumes (“gowns” say the credits, which also prefers “screen play” to “screenplay”) and its pained attention to detail, Mank comes across like three or even four decent B movies fighting for air.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Black Bear

Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott

 

Aubrey Plaza fans, here’s your film. In Black Bear she plays one, two, three or even four roles, depending on how you’re counting, as an actor/director trying to hash out a screenplay out in a cabin in the woods.

From the first instant that Allison (Plaza) arrives at this B&B “for creatives”, as owners Blair (Sarah Gadon) and Gabe (Christopher Abbott) put it, it’s obvious there’s going to be trouble. She, a self-declared “difficult” actress who went into directing because no on would employ her any more, immediately starts that bantering, joshing to and fro with host Gabe which indicates that she fancies him. As they walk up from the main gate, he responds similarly, even though he has a pregnant partner (Gadon) up at the house, who instantly sniffs which way the wind is blowing when she gets to meet Allison.

At dinner that night drink is taken, and the obvious differences between Gabe (a conservative) and Blair (a liberal) get a thorough airing. Relations deteriorate and Allison finds herself in a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? whirl of shouting and acrimony. If Gabe is going to cheat on the pregnant Blair then this might be his moment. Allison is looking wanton in an old fashioned way and earlier that day she’d made sure Gabe saw her heading for the lake in her red swimsuit cut very high on the thigh so… you know…

A rapid change of gears. The same three characters – Gabe, Blair and Allison. The same location – the cabin out in the woods. Except now the three of them are in the middle of a film shoot. Now it’s Gabe (Abbott) and Allison (Plaza) who are the item and Blair (Gadon) isn’t pregnant. She’s a support actress in a film being directed by Gabe. Allison is his star, an incredibly difficult one, drunk, hysterical and needy. Gabe, meanwhile is conspiring with Blair to make Allison think he’s cheating on her, to provoke her into giving the performance of her career.

There’s no need for any more plot than that, except to say that this collision of one reality with another does not stop there; there’s yet another reality floating in distorted meta style above all of them.

 

Allison starts to lose it
Allison, pushed right to the edge

 

It sounds confusing on the page but it’s less so on the screen, though that doesn’t mean this isn’t an immensely tricksy drama (horror movie?). It’s improved a lot by writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine’s decision to make the second half of the movie also a dramatised look at the making of an indie movie – the First AD with volcanic diarrhoea, the cameraman with an eye for the leading lady (or has she got an eye for him?), the wardrobe guy valiantly being the cool professional, the continuity person too stoned to keep up, the lesbian sound person trying to hit on the latest ingenue to come her way. Levine’s restless camera catches them all as the chaos builds, Gabe struggles to keep a grip and his star goes into a spectacular meltdown on and off camera.

Ingmar Bergman’s Persona lurks conceptually in the background somewhere, as Plaza, Gadon and Abbott work their way through an actorly exercise in shifting characters and emotional registers. All are excellent – it’s Plaza’s film, no doubt, and Gadon only really has a chance to shine in the first half. It’s Abbott, who was so wan recently in Possessor, who is the real surprise, revealing himself to be an actor of more range, subtlety and skill than I’d seen before.

Is it a horror film though? Yes, I think it is, an arthouse horror at some level, with unrestrained ego rampant as the “black bear”. Another great movie to add to the list of ones set in a cabin in the woods – 2002’s Cabin Fever, 2009’s Antichrist and 2011’a Cabin in the Woods (of course) being three that spring to mind. But then there was the terrible Secret Window (Johnny Depp in a Stephen King story) so let’s not get carried away.

 

 

 

Black Bear – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Mogul Mowgli

Zed in hospital gown

 

Mogul Mowgli jumps into debates about authenticity and cultural appropriation – often conducted by people with no skin in the game on behalf of people who do – and does a decent job of trying to make itself heard above the din of the culture war. It does it by focusing on the particular rather than the general in a story about a rapper who gets sick and ends up in hospital, where, stripped of what he thinks of as his identity, he starts to wonder who he is. His family, meanwhile, gather about and try (in authenticity/appropriation style) to impose their idea of who he is on him.

Riz Ahmed plays rapper Zed, a man from a Muslim family on the edge of making it big – hot girlfriend, fans, a big tour in the offing – who has to put it all on hold when he’s struck down by an auto-immune disease that causes him, literally, to become less than the person he was. He’s wasting away.

It’s a good metaphor but would also be a clunking one if Ahmed, who also co-wrote the script with director Bassam Tariq, didn’t finesse it with detail that springs from lived experience. Zed’s family are Muslims, but some are more devout than others, and Zed’s mother and aunties seem more superstitious than religious, with much talk of the “evil eye” to explain Zed’s condition.

By the same token Zed is reliant on “Western” medicine, but isn’t beyond accepting an intervention by an “ethnic” doctor – hey, whatever works, if it works.

 

Zed raps in front of a crowd
Zed performs to an adoring crowd

 

Rapper, son, brother, patient, Zed is a slightly different person depending on his situation. A cafeteria identity. For essentialists, Zed is a British Pakistani, and identifies as such, but that isn’t the whole story – his family actually came from India originally, and Pakistan was where they fled when being a Muslim in the largely Hindu India became a problem. So even his “real”, stated ethnicity is a bit of a fix.

In real life Riz Ahmed is also a rapper, his family is British Pakistani and they did, in fact, migrate out of India to Pakistan before arriving in the UK, so when Ahmed was doing the PR rounds with this film and describing it as the most personal thing he’d done, he probably wasn’t lying.

The overlap comes in handy when it comes to the performance scenes in flashback, when Zed gives crowd-pleasing raps about the question of identity and the immigrant experience.

It does all sound a bit worthy, doesn’t it – ethnicity, authenticity, the cultural cafeteria and the immigrant experience etc etc. Thankfully there is also humour, largely in the shape of the not un-Ali G alike rapper RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan), whose Pussy Fried Chicken number is both plausible and yet comically terrible. And on top of that there is the sideways shift into a magical realism reflecting Zed’s periodic out-of-body experiences caused by his illness, the drugs he’s on or emotional stress. Or all three.

And the switches of tone come rapidly – one second we’re at a gig, the next we’re at the hospital bedside, then suddenly there’s a weird fantasy creature gibbering in the corner, complete with orange and red wig obscuring his face. All handled with virtuosic skill by director Bassam Tariq in his feature debut (more work surely to follow).

But that’s no less drastic than the self-reliant swaggering rapper – the epitome of masculinity in his own eyes at least – suddenly reduced to dependent scared sick man in a hospital bed.

Chalk up another big success to Ahmed, who was one of so many brilliant elements in the TV series The Night Of (which the recent The Undoing so wanted to emulate but didn’t), and is now in pre-production for Hamlet, an updating of Shakespeare that could go all kinds of wrong in the wrong hands.

 

 

Mogul Mowgli – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

I am an Amazon affiliate

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020