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"Mank" 4K Review

 The slog through the Oscar nominations continues with Mank, David Fincher's biopic about Herman J. Mankiewicz, the co-writer of Citizen Kane with Orson Welles (though that is a point of contention in the film). And quite the slog it was. 

Working from a script written in the 1990s by his late father Jack Fincher, Mank is the story of the writing of Citizen Kane intercut with flashbacks to Mank's (played with boozy charm by Gary Oldman) times in 1930s Hollywood, specifically his interactions with studio bosses Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), and publishing tycoon William Randolph (Charles Dance) and his mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), who were barely disguised as the Kane and Susan Alexander characters. 

Recovering from an auto accident, Mank dictates his script to his secretary, Rita (Lily Collins), and fends off the people wondering where the script is (after starting very slowly, he ultimately hammers out on time) and then trying to dissuade him from actually allowing Welles to make it since it will anger the powerful Hearst who will damage it's prospects. (The latter was prescient because while Kane would go on to top Best Movie Ever lists forever, it was skunked in 8 of 9 nominations, only winning for its screenplay.)

Up for a field-leading 10 Academy Awards nominations (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Score, Sound, Hair & Makeup, but NOT its screenplay), Mank should have been an easy layup to enjoy. I like Fincher's movies - I've seen all but Zodiac (just haven't gotten around to it) and his Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake (didn't care for the original) - I like Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried, I like movies about the movies and so forth, but watching Mank was a chore. It took me three different sessions over a few weeks to get through it's two-hours-and-change length and I watched Zach Snyder's Justice League, which is twice the length, in an evening, albeit with a dinner break midway. I was so unenthused about finishing, I found myself scraping YouTube for a 1997 Sleater-Kinney at CBGB's concert and watched the Racoon Whisperer's barn being torn down before forcing myself to get it over with with Mank.

 I simply could not bring myself to care about anything or anyone in this movie. It wasn't the usual case where the characters are so unlikeable that you start actively rooting for their downfall, but that the hopscotch story structure - clearly meant to ape Kane's manner of contrasting Joseph Cotten's newsman trying to divine the meaning of Rosebud with flashbacks to Kane's life - just never seemed to be heading toward a point and ultimately it never does. 

Much time is spent on the 1934 California gubernatorial race between the socialist Upton Sinclair and the Republican favored by Hearst. All well and good, but who freaking cares in 2020? There are a few lines which could be read as slaps at a recently deposed orange fellow who had a brief stint as a politician, but those could be coincidental. As I was muddling through, disliking the script, I looked up the Oscar nom list and when I saw that the one thing it wasn't nominated for was the screenplay, it showed that as much as the Academy loves to acknowledge movies about Hollywood, especially artily done productions like this, there are limits to charity. I've seen grumbles about its inaccuracy and bias against Welles, but being boring is a greater sin than being inaccurate here.

Mank is little more than a besotted quip machine making bad gambles and undercutting whatever brilliant talent he possessed with some bad people skills (and I saw this as someone prone to poor people skilling). Oldman manages to make it seem more substantive than the script provides, but even a rounded out cartoon is a cartoon. But Gary Oldman being good is a rather low bar to clear.

Seyfried comes out very well here, making Davies a self-aware gold digger/kept woman who connects with Mank on a level that initially implies some sort of relationship could occur, as if the mistress of Hearst could get away with it. Seyfried has been trying to turn the corner from her early roles as a pneumatic ingenue in movies like Mean Girls, Boogie Woogie, and Veronica Mars, attempting to bump up into Serious Actress terrain with her 2013 biopic of Linda Lovelace and its requisite nudity (as Anne Hathaway joked in her disastrous Oscar hosting stint about Love and Other Drugs, "I showed by breasts, aren't I supposed to get an Oscar nomination?"), but this will hopefuly do the job similar to how her Mean Girls co-star Rachel McAdams has in dramas like Spotlight and the woeful second season of True Detective, also shedding her rom-com phase which she, to be blunt, was aging out.

 Another problem is the nominated cinematography; it's simply wrong for the story and the period. While Zach Snyder's Justice League bizarrely chose to use the 4:3 square aspect ratio (supposedly to fill IMAX screens when 99.9999999% of people seeing it would be on widescreen TVs), Mank is 2.20:1 widescreen black & white using custom-built monochrome RED Cinema cameras (which caused headaches for the visual effects because the usual blue or green screen backgrounds wouldn't work) despite being set 14-23 years before the first widescreen film, The Robe

Fincher has shot digitally since 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and is known for his short-lighting style (where the light comes predominantly from behind the actors, making faces the darkest areas) and a flat contrast, but it results in a very dim and murky image. I have an OLED TV which shines (pardon the pun) in low light content like sci-fi/horror films like Alien or Prometheus and the Dolby Vision image was just blah. Vintage B&W has a silvery luster and Kane's look (shot by Gregory Toland) was groundbreaking, so why didn't they try to mimic that look? Also, why the heck are there "cigarette burns" in the corner of the frame (to indicate the end of the reel as explained in Fight Club) when it's shot digitally and no movies go to video with that damage? You can't try to pretend you're making an old analog movie when you're widescreen and digital.

 Despite its pedigree and subject matter, Mank was a wank; a passion project of Fincher's to film his father's script which really didn't deserve to be made as it's simply too thin and irrelevant despite the legendary movie it's trying to tell the story of making. This may be the worst movie Fincher has made and I'm including Alien 3 in that accounting because even with the infamous meddling of the studio and fraught production which has led him to entire disown the film, it at least attempted to be interesting and about something.

Score: 3/10. Skip it. 


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