Streamers: “Mank,” “The Climb,” “Smooth Talk”

Rising COVID numbers, and Governor Brown’s reponse to them, have forced those Portland movie theaters that were offering private rentals to shut off that vital revenue stream. This has come at an especially inopportune moment, as several highly anticipated films were, or were about to be, available to watch locally on the big screen. Although that’s not possible at the moment, this post will be updated to reflect any change to that situation. In the meantime, keep an eye out for these winners on your streaming service or on (it still exists!) physical media in the near future.

“Mank”

MANK (2020) Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz and Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies. NETFLIX

Thirty-five years after his death, Orson Welles continues to exert a mythic hold on the American film landscape. The recent reconstruction of his long-lost final film, “The Other Side of the Wind,” the upcoming publication of the final volume in Simon Callow’s four-part biography, and the recent Venice Film Festival premiere of the documentary “Hopper/Welles”, all testify to a continued collective fascination with perhaps the most promising, frustrating, inventive, and dysfunctional of all American filmmakers.

This fascination extends even to Welles’ collaborators, as evidenced by “Mank,” the new drama from director David Fincher about “Citizen Kane” cowriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s contribution to Welles’ first, and most iconic, feature. While the power of Welles’ personality and artistic vision have led to widespread assumptions that he was overwhelmingly the impetus behind everything with his name on it, critic Pauline Kael’s 1971 essay “Raising Kane” (later expanded into “The Citizen Kane Book”) proposed a revisionist take, in which Mankiewicz was at least as responsible for the film’s screenplay as Welles. (Later scholarship cast doubts on Kael’s position).

In “Mank,” the writer is played by Gary Oldman, and we first meet him as he is recuperating from a broken leg in a desert cottage outside Los Angeles, attended to by a stenographer (Lily Allen) and a nurse. He’s been ensconced there, it turns out, by Welles (Tom Burke) in order to force him to finish his screenplay for “Kane.” His reward, he is told, is the cabinet of liquor that he can’t reach from his bedridden position—or so his keepers think. The desperation of the alcoholic knows few bounds.

From this intro, Fincher takes us through Mankiewicz’s career, which began in earnest as a member of the Algonquin Round Table in the 1920s and proceeded through the Hollywood of the 1930s. The scenes are often introduced by screenplay-style captions: “EXT. PARAMOUNT STUDIOS EXTERIOR 1930: FLASHBACK.” In them, we meet such luminaries as Ben Hecht, George S. Kaufman, Irving Thalberg, and Louis B. Mayer, the last expertly personified by Arliss Howard. Eventually, Mankiewicz befriends actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and thus enters the orbit of her paramour and sponsor, William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance, who, as Tywin Lannister, earned the right to play all the dastardly, cultured moguls), the conservative newspaper tycoon on whom Charles Foster Kane was famously modeled.

Along the way, there’s a fascinating exploration of the 1934 California gubernatorial campaign of investigative journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair, a full-throated socialist who attracts the support of Mankiewicz and other Hollywood writers, but whose chances were sabotaged by a flood of dishonest propaganda churned out by Mayer. Fake news is nothing new, of course. Also, someone should make a biopic about Sinclair someday.

The tension in “Mank” rises as the film approaches the point at which Mankiewicz, a frequently tolerated, frequently besotted guest at Heart’s San Simeon dinner parties, bites the hand (and the entire elite class) that has fed him by revealing Hearst/Kane as an archetype of American ego, grandiosity, and, ultimately, tragedy. When it comes, it’s a doozy of a scene.

The authorship of the screenplay for “Mank,” unlike that of “Kane,” is entirely undisputed. It was written by Fincher’s father, Jack Fincher, and marks his (posthumous) first film credit. Bringing Jack’s work to life was surely a labor of love for his son, and the result is engrossing, especially for those like me who can’t get enough takes on Welles and everyone around him. Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, shooting his first theatrical film after a busy TV career (much of it on Fincher’s Netflix series “Mindhunter”), employs beautiful, deep-focus black-and-white photography.

“Mank” doesn’t rank among the famously exacting Fincher’s best or purest works (“Zodiac,” “The Social Network”), though. Some of the smaller roles feel more like impersonations than performances, and you never totally buy Oldman, despite the bravado with which he tosses off Mankiewicz’s steady stream of cynical, sauced bon mots. There’s also not really enough at stake. Will Mank piss off his conservative benefactors? (Yes.) Will Welles bull his way to greatness, eclipsing his writing partner in the process? (Yes.) Will Davies emerge as a more complex and sympathetic character than the caricature of her presented in “Kane”? (Yes.)

In other words, even if you’re not a film history buff, you’ll know where this is thing is going, but it’s still a fair amount of fun getting there.

(“Mank” premieres on Netflix on Friday, December 4.)

“The Climb”

Left to Right: Gayle Rankin as Marissa, Kyle Marvin as Kyle, Michael Angelo Covino as Mike/Photo by Zach Kuperstein. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

Bromantic comedies come in all shapes and sizes, from the early microbudget efforts of the Duplass brothers (“Puffy Chair,” “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”) to the more polished Hollywood versions (“Step Brothers,” “I Love You, Man”). Director Michael Angelo Corvino’s feature debut, “The Climb,” operates somewhere in between these extremes, uniting a shaggy narrative with a sophisticated visual style to breathe new life into a generally tired genre. 

Corvino and his real-life best friend Kyle Marvin, who also co-wrote and co-produced, play Mike and Kyle, on-screen best friends whose relationship is shattered when, in the film’s opening scene, Mike confesses, on the day before the wedding, that he has slept with Kyle’s fiancé. Mike, it turns out, is one of those friends who, objectively speaking, are more trouble than they’re worth. The sort of pal who seems to exist just to create messes for his friends to clean up. But Kyle, to paraphrase another famous bromance, just can’t quit Mike.

The film spans years in the lives of these frenemies, as Mike bottoms out more than once and betrays Kyle more than twice. In between drunken shenanigans and surreal episodes, which include a memorable ice-fishing bachelor party, the ineffable, even perplexing bond between the two persists. Mike’s a bad influence, as more than one person tries to tell Kyle, a negative force that keeps Kyle from achieving his full potential. But, hey, that’s what friends are for, right?

The most interesting aspect of “The Climb,” however, isn’t its recitation of the mysteries of male bonding, but the craft of its filmmaking. Corvino is in love with the long take, with the result that his film contains maybe twenty shots at the most. The opening scene, in which Mike confesses his relationship with Kyle’s fiancé, is a single nine-and-a-half-minute shot following the pair as they bike up a mountain road. It’s an impressive feat, and one wonders at the cardiovascular stamina required to perform multiple takes.

Even more impressive is a single shot (with, granted, a bit of digital cheating) that begins during a Thanksgiving dinner, tracks out to the driveway, pauses, and then tracks back into the same home, where it’s now Christmas. There’s always a risk with a style like this of seeming showy, but the long takes here serve to play up the episodic nature of the narrative, and enhances the sense that Mike so frequently overstays his welcome. In any event, it’s an impressive gambit by a relatively inexperienced filmmaker, and one that pays off.

(“The Climb” is likely to be available to rent or stream early next year.)  

“Smooth Talk”

Laura Dern and Treat Williams in “Smooth Talk.” (Janus Films)

Upon its release, the 1985 independent drama “Smooth Talk” was hailed by none other than Roger Ebert as being “almost uncanny in its self-assurance” and featuring “an astonishing denouement.” It also won the Grand Jury Prize at the third Sundance Film Festival. Naturally, in the grand tradition of American cinephilia, it grossed a grand total of $16,785 on two screens.

Thirty-five years later, the movie is getting a second chance, largely because of the actress who played its 15-year-old protagonist. “Smooth Talk” was, in retrospect, the breakthrough role for Laura Dern. She had appeared opposite Eric Stoltz in “Mask” earlier the same year, but “Smooth Talk” allowed her to showcase the impressive combination of coltish innocence and hidden depth that would be drawn on the next year in “Blue Velvet,” and a career was launched.

In “Smooth Talk,” Dern plays Connie, a precocious, dissatisfied teenager spending much of the summer before her sophomore year of high school cruising the local shopping malls with her friends. She chafes against the oversight of her mother (Mary Kay Place, doing that passive-aggressive mother thing as only she can) and father (Levon Helm of The Band, convincingly inept). Connie’s more forward and flirtatious than most of her friends, wearing her curiosity about sexuality on her sleeve.

The story proceeds in meandering, coming-of-age fashion until its final third. Connie has been left alone while her family attends a cookout miles away. A car pulls into the gravel driveway of her isolated farmhouse. One man emerges, another remains behind the wheel. The one who gets out introduces himself as Arnold Friend, and he’s played by Treat Williams with enough slick menace to merit a dozen trigger warnings.

The conversational pas de deux in these final scenes between Arnold and Connie is the heart of “Smooth Talk,” which was directed by Joyce Chopra and (loosely) adapted by her husband Tom Cole from the Joyce Carol Oates story “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?”. To describe it, and its aftermath, in detail would ruin the movie. Even apart from its deliciously ambiguous narrative, though, “Smooth Talk” earns its rediscovery through the preternatural performance of Dern, demonstrating that the flawed humanity and intelligent sensuality she so often brings to her roles was there practically from the inception.

A footnote: This was director Joyce Chopra’s first feature following a 20-year career in documentaries, including the acclaimed autobiographical short “Joyce at 34” (currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel). Despite the critical success, of “Smooth Talk,” she would not direct another feature until 1990’s “The Lemon Sisters,” starring Diane Keaton and Carol Kane. That film flopped, and, unlike most male directors, Chopra was never given another chance to direct a theatrical feature. Her later credits include a couple of documentaries, an array of episodic television, and a barrage of made-for-TV movies, the last being a Disney Channel effort based on an American Girl doll.

(“Smooth Talk” will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray by The Criterion Collection in February.)

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