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Indie Focus: Movie history comes alive in ‘Mank’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

This week came the surprising announcement from Warner Bros. that all of its films released next year, including “Dune” and “Matrix 4,” will be released simultaneously to theaters and the HBO Max streaming platform, following the same strategy already announced for the upcoming Christmas Day release of “Wonder Woman 1984.”

Whether this will be a permanent shift in the dynamic between studios and movie theaters remains to be seen. As Carolyn Blackwood, chief operating officer of Warner Bros. Picture Group, told Ryan Faughnder, “It’s a temporary solution to COVID. We know the U.S. marketplace is the most challenged. Knowing that, and knowing we’re fully committed to theatrical, our question was, how are we going to handle this and create a dynamic that can benefit all of the stakeholders?”

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This week also saw the announcement of the upcoming “The Envelope” podcast, hosted by me and my Times colleague Yvonne Villarreal. Each week will feature interviews with figures behind some of the year’s most exciting movies. The podcast launches next week with three episodes, featuring conversations with Anya Taylor-Joy for “The Queen’s Gambit,” Jurnee Smollett for “Lovecraft Country” and Andy Samberg for “Palm Springs.” Sign up for our Envelope newsletter to get highlights from the latest episodes, plus more on awards season.

We are very excited to present a free virtual screening event with the existential romantic drama “Wander Darkly,” written and directed by Tara Miele and starring Sienna Miller and Diego Luna. RSVP here to stream the film between Dec. 7 and Dec. 9 and then have access to an exclusive Q&A with Miele and Miller on Dec. 9.

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‘Mank’

The first feature film directed in six years by David Fincher, “Mank” is among the most anticipated movies of the year, not least because it touches on a key moment in film history. With a screenplay credited to Fincher’s father, Jack, who died in 2003, the film tackles the story of how writer Herman Mankiewicz came to write the initial draft of what would become Orson Welles’ towering “Citizen Kane.” Starring Gary Oldman as Mankiewicz, the film also features Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies and Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst. Perhaps it should be no surprise that a movie about writing and the movies has inspired a lot of great writing about the movie. Already playing in select theaters where they are open, the movie is now streaming on Netflix.

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Fincher spoke with Glenn Whipp about what he liked in working with Gary Oldman in the demanding lead role. “My experience with Gary is that he’s almost obscenely honest. There were a lot of reservations about Mank as a character because, more than anything, he needed to be human. You can’t just load a character up with all the best quips. You have to understand why people are frustrated with him. And a lot of actors, without saying it, may have wanted to tone down the alcoholism because it’s a little too real. … Yet you find him insanely human because Gary just vibrates that courage of commitment.”

For The Times, Justin Chang called the film “very much a story about class divides and clashing egos, outsiders and insiders, striving and ambition, creation and authorship, and the thrill and loneliness of being the smartest guy in the room. It would make a particularly fascinating Mank-and-Mark double bill with Fincher’s ‘The Social Network,’ which not coincidentally was greeted as the ‘Citizen Kane’ of tech-whiz biopics. But while ‘Mank’ shares some key Fincher collaborators (among them the editor Kirk Baxter and the composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), it doesn’t have quite the same electrifying moment-to-moment verve. The off-kilter rhythms feel both immersive and agitated, as if Fincher were trying to both hypnotize you and jolt you awake with his lustrous Old Hollywood homage.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote of the film’s relationship to “Citizen Kane” by saying, “As an account of the movie’s origin this may be arguable, but would-be defenders of Welles’s reputation risk missing the argument that the Finchers, père and fils, are advancing. … [Mankiewicz] is, almost as a matter of principle, a minor player in the Hollywood pageant. The paradoxes of his position are the film’s real subject. He is a bleeding-heart liberal comfortably ensconced in a fundamentally conservative milieu, a court jester whose proximity to power underscores his impotence, a critical intellect whose aloofness renders him ineffectual. Like a lot of East Coast scribes (then and still) he thinks the movies are beneath him, even though he doesn’t mind the money or the company. He finds it easier to crack a joke than to take a stand.”

For Slate, Dana Stevens wrote, “The figure that looms over the film from afar is the 24-year-old Orson Welles, who appears only briefly, mostly in phone calls that show his face in shadowy profile, until a late scene when he finally has it out with Mank over who will get credit for the screenplay. … The choice to make the director and star of ‘Kane’ a peripheral character means that the movie’s central conflict takes place mainly off screen. ‘Mank’ often feels like a loose bundle of subplots in search of a throughline. It’s engaging moment to moment, but with so many scenes establishing the fact that the protagonist is a self-sabotaging Hollywood outsider, the story has a tendency to flag, and the two-hour-and-12-minute running time hardly flies by.”

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For Rolling Stone, K. Austin Collins wrote, “Though the horizons of Fincher’s art have always been broader than they at first appear — this isn’t even the intensively modern director’s first period picture — ‘Mank’ is somewhat unnerving in its sincerity and topical breadth, its tense mingling of history and speculation, its ironically pointed attitude toward the Hollywood studio system. This last point only gains more traction and intrigue in light of this movie being, from the outset, a production of Netflix International Pictures, a fact somehow inseparable from the film’s congealed rash of ideas. Commerce, art, period politics: It’s all here. Among Fincher die-hards, the result will probably bemuse some, bore many, and thrill a relative but hearty minority. Count me in the minority.”

Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies and Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz in "Mank."
(Netflix)

‘I’m Your Woman’

Directed by Julia Hart, who co-wrote the screenplay with her producer (and husband) Jordan Horowitz, “I’m Your Woman” is the story of a woman, Jean (Rachel Brosnahan), forced to go on the run after her low-level criminal husband (Bill Heck) gets into trouble. Along the way she is aided by Cal (Arinzé Kene), who eventually introduces Jean to his family (Marsha Stephanie Blake, De’Mauri Parks, Frankie Faison). The film is both an engaging character study and a knowing critique of crime movie conventions. In limited release where theaters are open, the film begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Dec. 11.

In a review for The Times, Justin Chang called the film “beautiful, engrossing and potently subversive,” adding, “For all the relentless linearity of ‘I’m Your Woman,’ the unpredictable road that Jean and her companions are traveling will lead them perhaps inescapably backward, so that distant wrongs can be confronted and rectified. Fittingly enough, that describes Hart’s approach as well. With cool-toned assurance, warm-hued visuals and a well-timed blast of Aretha Franklin, she excavates and interrogates the ghosts of movies past, suggesting they may hold at least one key to our cinematic future.”

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For the New York Times, Glenn Kenny wrote, “‘I’m Your Woman’ unfolds these tense situations in a paradoxically languorous style. Hence, the near misses with death start to feel like so many red herrings. The movie’s vagueness wants to appear purposeful, reflecting Jean’s disorientation, but it’s mostly confounding. Brosnahan, when she’s not playing panicked, largely enacts Jean as an irritated cipher.”

For Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastién wrote, “The reality for women in the 1970s was both bleak and full of fiery feminist invention. … This was a decade of monumental upheaval for women, for Black folks, for this country. One can’t help but bring this knowledge to the film. But ‘I’m Your Woman’ doesn’t simply spit up these facts; they exist behind the relations between all of its characters. ‘I’m Your Woman’ could easily have fashioned Jean’s story into one meant only for a certain modern ‘feminist’ resonance. She could have spoken sassy one-liners intended to put down the men in her life and the patriarchal system that shapes her trajectory. The story could have ignored the racial politics of its narrative. It could have easily been a vacuous parade of period grit glossed up for our age. But it’s not. It’s something more slippery and compelling: the simply rendered story of a woman trying to stand on her own.”

Rachel Brosnahan and Arinzé Kene sit in a car in "I'm Your Woman."
Rachel Brosnahan and Arinzé Kene in “I’m Your Woman.”
(Wilson Webb / Netflix)

‘Black Bear’

Written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine, “Black Bear” is a head-spinning exploration of creativity, identity and partnership and whether it is a good idea to make a movie with your spouse. Aubrey Plaza gives an astonishing, riveting lead performance as Allison, a filmmaker looking for inspiration when she goes to stay with a couple (Sarah Gadon, Christopher Abbott) at their secluded lake house. Then the story shifts to a similar but separate second half with enigmatic connections to the first. The film is playing at the Cinelounge Drive-in in Hollywood and in limited release where theaters are open; it’s also on VOD.

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For The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “Both Plaza and Gadon have opportunities to let loose, and they deliver hysterics in spades, as Abbott toggles between loving, cajoling, offended, remote. You never know who is telling the truth or toying with the others. Though ‘Black Bear’ often feels playful and funny, an arch exercise in storytelling, the script itself is raw and revealing. … ‘Black Bear’ hearkens to the past, to works like ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ (starring that great co-working couple of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton), as it places a modern lens on complicated questions of art, love and perspective in storytelling, in an entertaining and intelligent thriller of intimate proportions.”

For the New York Times, Teo Bugbee wrote, “Lawrence Michael Levine wrote and directed this puzzle-box movie, and he juggles big ideas with enterprising panache. … But Levine hasn’t created relationships that feel deep enough to elicit a sense of mystery. The movie plays like a well-crafted game, one with stable rules and safeties, perfectly enjoyable but limited. The director and the performers circle ideas about how intimacy can be manipulated to satisfy artistic ambitions, but the experiment feels easy to leave behind.”

For The Playlist, Robert Daniels wrote, “Most of all, ‘Black Bear’ in its efforts to deconstruct independent filmmaking, the type that’s truly done on a shoelace budget with minimal crew, questions the still utilized methods of artistic creation. … Each performance is effortless, quickly locking in new character dynamics tightly. The ease stems from Levin’s sharp but winking dialogue, which allows each character to be the worst version of their archetype, and a trio of actors who aren’t deterred by a film that never wholly conforms to reality. Unique and unfazed, hilarious yet philosophical, ‘Black Bear’ is the comedic form reinvented and re-conformed to mad and intoxicating ends.”

Aubrey Plaza, wearing a bathing suit, sits on a towel in the movie "Black Bear."
Aubrey Plaza in the movie “Black Bear.”
(Momentum Pictures)

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